For the life of me, I can't find it, but there was an article earlier this week on ESPN that described the machine that Calipari has rolling in Lexington, fueled by stellar one-and-done talent, with the sole objective of showcasing those talents to the NBA. Calipari is unapologetic about his philosophy, and it's hard to argue with the Roses and Evanses and DeCousinses and Walls raking in the big bucks now.
My Spartans came home early this year, and won't hear the cheers of Geaux Green, Geaux White in Nawlins. That after getting smacked in the mouth at the end of a tumultuous 2010-11 campaign. Sure, there were the two Final Four runs the previous two years, the improbable "hometown" Championship game appearance in 2009 and the overachieving string of wins in 2010 with Lucas in sweatpants on the bench, but these teams were the antitheses of juggernauts. There was no surefire NBA talent there, and those teams, as well as any from the past 10+ years had obvious weaknesses and more than their share of vulnerabilities, unlike this freakish Kentucky squad.
In spite of that lack of flash and firepower, am I eternally grateful for and proud of what we have here in East Lansing instead.First of all, we have Tom Izzo. The man is an icon at the school, in the greater Lansing area, in the state, and nationwide. Public appearances, doors open at home, charitable contributions, endless cheerleading for MSU's other athletic programs, he's the man. He's simply-spoken, doesn't beat around the bush, and is as realistic a realist as you can find. Whether he gets a 30-point win or 30-point loss, there are always lessons to be learned and things to be improved upon. He's not full of himself, or his team. His arms never reach around to pat himself on the back. He never comes across as holier than thou, ungrateful, or crooked. On the contrary, he's always looking for ways to improve, ways to learn, and how to represent his school and his state in the best way that he can while preparing his players for success on the floor and in the real world for the rest of their lives. And last I checked, all his banners are still hanging in the Breslin rafters, and we don't have to pretend that any of his successes never happened.
The players he seeks out are certainly of a different variety. Under his watch, he's had no players that went on to NBA Superstar status. Shannon Brown and Zach Randolph are maybe the closest, but they're not at that elite level. I don't know if Izzo looks for guys whose egos won't prevent them from being coached, or guys who are projects, or guys who have similar mindsets as his own, or what. But I like the caliber of players he brings in. His kids are predominantly from the Midwest, close to home, and have their fair share of strengths and weaknesses. Some don't pan out. Some do. Some seem to depend on the color of their socks that day. But rarely are they ditching school early, and even more seldom are they viewing and using Michigan State as a mere stepping stone for their real goal in the NBA.
Our players have a genuine interest in succeeding at this level. Not just because they have to have something to focus on for the year after they graduate high school, but because they want to succeed at the college level. How vested can our interest be, as fans, in kids who have no vested interest in the program and school that they're representing? The kids making a pit stop at Big Blue are doing just that. Yes, they'll be insanely successful from performance and financial perspectives, but do you think they care about UK? The state of Kentucky? They know Calipari's track record, and because (and in spite) of that, they flock there as he's steadily proving he's a reliable conduit straight to the NBA. I love rooting for players who aren't looking ahead and aren't grooming and primping for the scouts, and who will put in the time and the work here at Michigan State, who will likely get their degree, and will remember where they came from and who helped them get there, wherever they go.
I love being able to strike up a meaningful conversation with just about anyone I sit next to at Breslin. They remember when and how Green helped that 2009 team get to Detroit. Summers' throwdown in Robinson's face that registered on the richter scale. They remember Drew Neitzel's three that bounced around about twice as long as Appling's St. Louis coffin nailer, to beat #1 Wisconsin. They remember Raymar playing with mono, how Suton was so frustrating and invaluable all in the same game. They remember the improbable weekend toppling Duke and Kentucky, the Elite Eight matchup against Iowa State, the Basket Bowl, the drubbing of Michigan on Mateen's senior day, Jud pounding his head, Respert starting something by kissing the S, Smith's smoothness, Skiles' mouth, and of course Magic's everything. Every school surely has its irrational optimists and pessimists alike, but I generally find State fans just as realistic as they are rabidly passionate.
A portion of UK fans, I feel sorry for. Not in a pity sort of way, although I guess it is. Every school has fans who are reasonable and realistic and the average joes. They want their team to win, just as we all do. They went to school there, have a kid who's there now, and/or have lived there their whole life. But now their team has been overrun by this slick Coach Hollywood, checkered past and all, Pied Pipering in the most talented high schoolers in the nation. These kids are clearly focused on the NBA and gobs of money. The Piper is just a means to an end. Rupp Arena is just a building where most of their games will be played. The school is nothing to them. I can't imagine trying to be genuinely supportive and passionate about Spartan basketball if it were headed up by a snake oil salesman and his young, dollar-eyed punks.
Another portion just drive me nuts. They bandwagon on and just want the wins. The titles and banners. The limelight. Things in an of themselves aren't bad, and frankly are what we all want for our schools. But they'll take them, expect them, demand them while turning a bind eye to the fact that Calipari is an egotistical crook, that they players couldn't give a crap about the school, and there are fair odds that those banners and trophies will be revoked at some point in the future. So what? We won! I'm much more satisfied with a disappointing exit after the Sweet Sixteen, ending a run lead by the memorable and indispensable Draymond Green than a Championship collected by a cockily smug Calipari and a brooding Terrance Jones and Company who couldn't truly care less if this weren't merely a resume bullet on the resumes they'll pass out for their first real-world job. If that's the kind of success that makes people feel good about themselves as fans, I guess I pity you too.
So while I, like the original article's author, hope that Kentucky loses tonight or Monday night, it won't prevent the inevitable. If it's not this year, they'll be in the hunt next year and the year after that before they win it all. It's only a matter of time. And it will only reinforce the momentum Calipari has built in Lexington. He has paved the way for the top high school talent to seek him out where they will be coached and groomed for the professional level where their hearts truly lie. He will get his 30+ wins a year and his banners, with far too many coming against what might as well be middle school teams. The players will quickly move on as steadily as they arrived, and their brief stay at the NCAA level will soon be forgotten if it even registered in the first place. Some fans will puff up their chests as they feel indignantly and obnoxiously validated as superior human beings because of all of this, while other fans are far less comfortable with and engaged in the whirlwind that's set up residence in Lexington.
All the while, I'll be proud of my team for accomplishing what they did this year when they were on no one's radar back in November. The way they came together like no Izzo group had before, distributed the spotlight all season long, and gave us insights into their lives and characters. Next October can't get here soon enough. You better believe Geaux Green, Geaux White would have been awesome this April, don't get me wrong. But I'll always have the pride and eager anticipation of what's coming next for our program, knowing the caliber of the man who's at the helm, and of the players he's gathered for the long haul. Go Green, Go White, this April and forever.