Why one man’s Isiah Thomas is another man’s Jim Brown – calling on 20-somethings to watch the Bad Boys ESPN 30 for 30 film

I finished watching ESPN’s 30 for 30 documentary on the Bad Boys era Detroit Pistons with several emotions:

- I was nostalgic and mesmerized, reminded that the 1987-90 Pistons came along at the height of my sports hero-worship, ages 7 through 10.

- Realizing that folks under 30 years old never knew this NBA era and therefore, don’t really know basketball.

- Grateful that young folks had a chance to see this, to be educated to who Isiah Thomas and Joe Dumars were before they were NBA executives, to the greatness of this backcourt, to see highlights of Thomas’ 25-point third quarter on a freshly sprained ankle in Game 6 of the 1988 NBA finals.

- Certain this documentary ought to be required in history classes, and for anyone under 30 who wants to talk basketball ever again.

- And then, realizing Isiah Thomas, for me, is was the equivalent of Jim Brown for my father.

Growing up in this state, in the Bad Boys era, I also naturally thought Barry Sanders was the greatest running back ever to live, just as I think Thomas is the greatest basketball player under 6-foot-5 ever to play.

I’m probably right about both. But I remember my father trying to explain to me Jim Brown, and how dominant he was in his era (in any era, actually). I listened, shrugged and kept watching Barry (who was a first-name athlete, just like Michael).

A few years before the late 80s Pistons, the 1983 Philadelphia 76ers were a collection of incredible talents – Julius Erving (Dr. J to 20 somethings), center Moses Malone (one of the original high school-to-the-pros stars), point guard Mo Cheeks (yes, that Mo Cheeks). I have zero recollection of that team, considered one of the best NBA teams ever. There are 40-year-olds on the East Coast who probably think that makes me an ignorant NBA fan.

Every age group has their team. Think about it: College students in Michigan State’s Izzone section at Breslin Center don’t remember Mateen Cleaves at Michigan State. In some ways, that makes them unqualified for the Izzone.

Someone has always done it just as well earlier. Sometimes better. Remember that.

I’m grateful I became a cognizant sports fan just as the Bad Boys came to be. And happy, on this front, that I’m not a few years younger.

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UConn’s backcourt-driven national title weekend emphasizes MSU’s harsh truth – Spartans once had best team in country

It turned out Connecticut’s guards were better than any other team in this NCAA tournament — Kentucky, Florida and Michigan State included.

MSU once had a similar backcourt, with Kentucky- and Florida-type pieces around it.

If I were Tom Izzo or Keith Appling, or any member of MSU’s program from November through early January, I’m not sure watching UConn’s Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright dribble around and shoot over the talented and youthful Wildcats Monday night would make me feel any better.

Yes, the team that beat the Spartans in the regional finals won it all, showing its dizzying spurts, backcourt-based defensive pressure and wiry interior defenders could hold up against anyone in college basketball.

Except maybe MSU, as it once was.

When the Spartans beat Kentucky, 78-74, on Nov. 12 in Chicago, they had a Napier-Boatright backcourt. That’s was Appling and Gary Harris were, in tandem — both that night, when they combined for 42 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists and seven steals against the Wildcats’ Harrison twins, and later, other than when Harris battled an ankle sprain in December and until Appling’s wrist injury took hold of his season.

Aaron and Andrew Harrison weren’t then yet what they became in March. But Appling and Harris ran circles around them. Appling especially, with 22 points, eight rebounds, eight assists and four steals.

Remember that Appling.

Contrast him with the player who finished in New York against Napier. No comparison. Imagine that matchup — Appling then and Napier now. They might have been the best two point guards in the country.

Imagine Appling and Harris with Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson as they were playing at season’s end, and with Denzel Valentine and Travis Trice …

There wasn’t a better team playing this weekend in Texas.

It’s a harsh truth. Injuries happen. But MSU had a championship team. Just didn’t win a championship.

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Wrapping up MSU-UConn: Appling vs. Trice; Payne’s sincerity toward Chapman; and a matchup misjudged

NEW YORK — Keith Appling became a polarizing figure for Michigan State fans late in this basketball season.

That continues today, as emails, tweets and comments continue to mostly center around the Spartans’ senior point guard, who was a limited offensive player the last two months, Sunday’s season-ending regional final loss to Connecticut included.

What happened to Appling — however much of it psychological or physical — was a shame for him. It looked like he was headed for a brilliant senior year, and wound up being largely the reason MSU felt short.

Two thoughts on this:

- No one should question how much Appling cared. No one cared more. No one feels worse than him. He didn’t let you down, frustrating as it may be. That’s not how this works.

- Travis Trice wasn’t the better option at point guard Sunday. He struggled to bring the ball up against UConn’s three-quarter-court pressure from guards Ryan Boatright and Shabazz Napier. This is one of those things that separates point guards — the ability to create space and keep a dribble in front of pressure. It’s something Appling does well. Even this Appling. Sunday’s Appling gave MSU a better shot at offense than Sunday’s Trice. And it’s something Trice has to work on in the offseason.

Tender moment between Payne, Chapman:

There was a moment at the end of Sunday’s game that showed the genuine friendship between MSU seniors Adreian Payne and Dan Chapman — one a future NBA power forward, the other a former walk-on, playing his final game.

With less than a second remaining, and the Spartans headed for a crushing defeat, Chapman banked in a 3-pointer. Payne instinctually ran over to Chapman, smiled and hugged him.

“The past four years, AP and I developed a pretty good friendship,” Chapman said. “And I think that kind of summed it up right there. Even in the darkest of moments, you’ve still got your friend coming over there congratulating you on something that should make you feel better than it did, obviously given the scenario. It definitely meant a lot to me.”

A whiff on analyzing MSU’s matchup with Connecticut:

Beforehand, Connecticut seemed like the ideal Elite Eight opponent for MSU — an inexperienced coach, a team that preferred a quick pace, MSU’s preferred pace, and one without much bulk on the interior.

It turned out not to be so simple.

UConn second-year head coach Kevin Ollie put together a terrific game plan, giving Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson no room to work in the post. It’s what he said he wanted to do — make it uncomfortable for them early.

What I didn’t realize is that his wiry and quick interior players were a worthy answer for MSU’s interior duo. They were athletic enough to double-team without leaving obvious holes and able to recover when Payne pump-faked and drove.

Just as impressively, they kept Dawson off the glass. No one had done that during the previous six games, or most of the season for that matter. When it had happened, it was usually a no-show performance from Dawson. Sunday, Dawson made the effort.

Lastly, the low score wasn’t indicative of the frenzied urgency or ball-pressure, which UConn handled better for much of the game. The Huskies are a great story, a program emerging from NCAA sanctions, with loyal senior guards unwilling to be done. That shouldn’t be underestimated. Neither should Ollie, or the pieces he has at his disposal.

That said, MSU could have won this game, and changed the narrative. Turnovers in bunches did the Spartans in. The loss is as much on them as UConn. That’ll make it harder to stomach and more lasting.

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MSU 25, UConn 21 – halftime musings: Spartans survive heckuva blow

NEW YORK — I’ve written recently about Michigan State’s ability to absorb a punch. But during this six-game run, opponent’s have only ever landed a blow after being nearly run off the court.

This time, Connecticut did the overwhelming out of the gate. The Huskies jumped out 12-2, while MSU missed 9 of 10 shots to begin the game.

For a moment, I’m not sure MSU believed it was the better team. There was that look of urgency and concern.

Since, the Spartans are 8 of 14 shooting – but they survived with defense. They scored the final nine points of the half, holding UConn scoreless for more than five minutes.

The defense on the perimeter during that stretch — chasing, switching, closing out, locking down — was as impressive as I’ve seen anywhere in college basketball all season.

MSU needed Gary Harris in this game and he’s delivered — 12 points, 5 of 7 shooting, 2 of 4 3s.

UConn makes it difficult on MSU’s bigs, more so than I realized, because the Huskies are athletic and wiry, and Dawson and Payne aren’t natural bulldozers.

That was an incredibly interesting half of basketball. MSU’s played a few of those lately, and keeps winding up ahead.

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Virginia dared Branden Dawson to carry MSU offensively – and he did

NEW YORK — Branden Dawson was the difference in Michigan State’s win over Virginia. Cavaliers coach Tony Bennett said made that much clear, as did the stat sheet.

Dawson would have been the difference either way. Virginia made that decision. If MSU was going to win Friday night, it would be on Dawson’s broad shoulders.

Virginia pulled center Mike Tobey off of Adreian Payne after Payne scored seven of MSU’s first 10 points. Akil Mitchell was a better option, similar to Harvard’s athletic power forwards. Payne abuses less-athletic big guys. He struggles against smaller, quicker defenders.

So it was up to Dawson to beat Tobey and others, since he’d been freed from Mitchell.

He did, repeatedly attacking and finishing or drawing fouls. Twenty-four points, 10 rebounds, 6 of 8 free throws, one steal, one assist, zero turnovers.

“Akil’s a terrific defender for us,” Bennett said. “And early Dawson got by him and drew some fouls. Akil was a little tight on him, when I saw him do that to Akil a couple times, it made me nervous.  Then the way Payne started the game, we got to switch the matchups. And then that was a hard matchup for our big guy, Mike Tobey. (Dawson is) a matchup problem because he’s so explosive, so athletic. And then he just, he doesn’t need a lot of shots. I know he got 16 shots, but he’s always around the ball and he plays much bigger than his height.”

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MSU 31, Virginia 27 – halftime musings: This game turned on one defensive gaffe

NEW YORK — Michigan State had a chance to run away with this.

It led 23-14, with 8 minutes until halftime, Virginia struggling with its confidence in the moment – tight and unable to hit shots.

Then, in transition, Kenny Kaminski and Adreian Payne botched a switch on Cavaliers guard Joe Harris, who promptly buried an open 3. Virginia woke up in that moment, as did its crowd, and MSU was no longer in control.

The Spartans lead this game 31-27 because, as they showed against Harvard, they aren’t scared to take a punch. Gary Harris’ old-fashioned 3-point play, on a muscled bucket, stopped the bleeding.

Dawson’s aggression offensively led to another late score, before a terrific final defensive possession.

This could have been easier, with a couple more stops and scores midway through the half. MSU has shown, however, it can win a grinder. It’s in one.

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The anatomy of a toothless rumor – Tom Izzo to the Detroit Pistons

There are headlines all over the internet this morning about the possibility of Michigan State coach Tom Izzo coaching the Detroit Pistons next year.

If you’ve clicked on this headline, you’ve probably clicked on a few of those. Or listened to talk radio or television pundits discuss the possibility.

You’ve been had, by an ever-developing-media-makes-news-to-break-news-page-views-click-’em culture.

ESPN is the best at this. One of its analysts will say something controversial, which creates a headline and a discussion point. Slow news day? No worries. Get Ron Jaworski to say he wouldn’t draft Johnny Manziel.

ESPN’s Jalen Rose — not exactly the source on Tom Izzo (maybe the furthest person from it) — did it this time, with USA today’s Sam Amick giving the story credibility, except that all he said was, “One name (Pistons owner Tom Gores is) expected to go after” is Izzo.

About as surprising and as much breaking news as a pimple-faced 15-year-old boy being attracted to a leggy 17-year-old high school senior.

If Gores wasn’t interested in Izzo, that would be news.

Rose’s comments created this artificial stir, and his analysis was so inaccurate, I’m embarrassed media colleagues haven’t pointed that out. Or simply refused to write the story altogether. Some have.

Here’s what Rose said on his podcast on Grantland, implying Izzo is gearing up to leave:

“Just being in the know, being in the loop and really following both sports intimately, watching how Izzo has recruited recently, if you noticed, most of the top schools — Kansas comes to mind, Kentucky and now even Duke — they’re doing more recruiting of what we consider the one-and-done prospects. You notice that Tom Izzo hasn’t really gone heavily after those prospects. It seemed like to me he was gearing up for one last run.”

Say what? So, Jalen, Izzo wasn’t recruiting Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones? He did spent more hours on Cliff Alexander than any Chicago-area recruit since Shannon Brown?

Rose isn’t Izzo’s favorite person. I’m fairly certain they don’t talk all that often. If ever.

Izzo shrugged off the speculation during an ESPN SportsCenter interview on Tuesday, because there really is no story to comment on. But you see how ESPN does this — Rose says something, it becomes a headline, a talking point, and folks tune in to hear Izzo’s response. It’s disgusting journalism, no better than if I said right now …

“The Pistons have no chance of getting Izzo, because Cleveland Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert, an MSU guy and Izzo fan, will outspend anyone should Izzo again express interest in the NBA.”

My logic there is stronger than Rose’s.

I still believe if Tom Izzo wins a national title, he’ll seriously consider leaving — maybe for broadcasting, perhaps the NBA. And if he doesn’t win in Dallas next month, my gut is he’ll stay at MSU a bit longer. He’s started to include himself when he talks about next year, which he wasn’t doing earlier in the season.

But I don’t know. No one does. I don’t think Izzo has even made a decision. At some point, he’ll be done at MSU. He’s 19 years in.

As for Izzo to the Pistons – it’s bar talk right now. It became a headline because a ton of news websites (this one included) will happily take your clicks.

Thanks for clicking.

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Why Wichita State’s early matchup with Kentucky was unjust

The snickering has begun, Wichita State is gone, the 1 seed that didn’t belong bumped early from the NCAA tournament by one of the sport’s blue bloods, despite its 8 seed.

The Shockers got a raw deal. The NCAA tournament committee can slice it any which way it chooses, but if any other No. 1 seed had drawn Kentucky as its 8 seed and second matchup — Arizona or Virginia, perhaps — the college basketball world would be up in arms. I can hear Dick Vitale’s voice in my head: (enter high-pitched voice) “It’s a travesty for those kids at Virginia, who worked so hard for a No. 1 seed, and they an underachieving Kentucky team, with Final Four talent, right away.”

I get the argument that if you’re truly the best, you’ve got to beat the best. But the whole point of a No. 1 seed is it’s supposed to be a reward for the regular season, there is supposed to be some sort of advantage. Wichita State would have been better served as a No. 2 seed. It would have rolled through every No. 7 seed in this field.

Or any other 8 seed. Think about it: Colorado and Kentucky were on the same line.

Kentucky probably deserved an 8 seed based on its body of work. Understood. But anyone who saw the Wildcats in November or in the SEC tournament, knew the potential was there for much more. This was, after all, the preseason No. 1, based on the most heralded recruiting class ever. So, either the talent is Final Four-caliber, or early rankings are abolished beginning today.

Pundits are fond of using the term “eye test” when judging college basketball teams, usually as a way to ignore the accomplishments of a mid-major. Kentucky wasn’t a No. 8 seed by the “eye-test” standard. If you want to punish great talent for grossly underachieving, that’s fine. But don’t punish the No. 1 seed. Put Kentucky on the 11 line, or put them in a play-in game, in the side of the bracket with the 3s and 6s. Or make them a 6. Not an 8. And, if an 8, how about in the bracket of the lowest No. 1 seed, Virginia?

And if you’re laughing at mid-major Wichita State today, you don’t know basketball or you didn’t watch a minute of the Shockers this season, Sunday included. That was a Final Four-type game. Kentucky, as it played Sunday, might have beaten every team in the NCAA tournament field, Florida, Virginia, Arizona and Michigan State included.

I’ve heard folks say Wichita State was just introduced to Big Boy basketball. Keep in mind, the Shockers were in last year’s Final Four, beating Gonzaga and Ohio State along the way, and pushing Louisville to the brink.

This year, they beat NCAA tournament teams Saint Louis, BYU, Tulsa and Tennessee, and also Alabama, and then pounded the Missouri Valley Conference, staying perfect through nine conference road games. Do you know how many Horizon League road games Butler dropped in its last run to the NCAA tournament final? Four. Conference road games in any league are a chore.

Wichita State would love to play Kansas, as Dayton would love to play Ohio State. The JayHawks and Buckeyes instead duck the matchup and count on the ignorance and snobbery of high-major fan bases to ignore the injustice.

When a school turns down an out-of-league game – and has open dates to play it – that ought to be on the record and taken into seeding consideration. The courage factor, we’ll call it.

I covered the mid-major world for six years, and have good friends who are fans of another Missouri Valley school. To walk in those shoes is to see a different perspective. Every high-major fan and reporter and talking head ought to spend a couple of years in that world and then come back. You’d see something closer to the truth. Something you don’t often get from the mouths of college basketball’s money.

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As room for error decreases, so does Spartans’ rotation

SPOKANE, Wash. — The roles played by Kenny Kaminski and Matt Costello were still important in Saturday’s 80-73 NCAA tournament win over Harvard, but Michigan State’s season of depth is turning into a tournament of mostly six guys.

Of MSU’s 200 minutes, all but 23 were played by the starters and Travis Trice.

Kaminski played nine minutes, hit two important first-half 3s, as MSU built its lead and set the tone. Costello was solid in seven minutes — three points, two rebounds, a block and a steal.

The matchup didn’t favor either them — especially Costello. Harvard has small but quick bigs. He’ll play more probably against bigger rosters.

But Tom Izzo, its clear, is going to ride his horses, win or lose with his guns, these rare pieces he so looked forward to coaching at the beginning of this season.

And because it’s a versatile top six, barring foul trouble, he only has to turn to the depth MSU spent a season developing and living on out of necessity when that role is needed. Kaminski, for his shooting, and Costello ability to competently spell Payne, are likely to be on the floor for stretches next week, and perhaps the week after.

That could be about it.

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The column that won’t be written: How Cincinnati’s misfortune helped to build MSU’s basketball program

SPOKANE, Wash. — I root for stories. Not teams. I prefer interesting to winning. Genuine over incredible.

So while Harvard’s basketball coach has compelling ties to Michigan State, its program’s story interesting on its own, I found myself rooting for Cincinnati on Thursday, because of its own ties to MSU.

MSU basketball is the brand it is, in part, thanks to the misfortune of Cincinnati.

In the days Tom Izzo was just building his program, Cincinnati was an established power under Bob Huggins.

Arguably the two most critical moments in Izzo’s tenure were landing Flint Northern 1996 recruit Mateen Cleaves, and four years later, Cincinnati star Kenyon Martin’s broken leg just before the 2000 NCAA tournament.

Cleaves final three college choices were MSU, Michigan and Cincinnati. Had he chosen Huggins and the Bearcats, it’s likely Izzo’s program never takes off. MSU might have had two or three coaches since. Izzo might be in his eighth season at Northern Michigan University.

Instead, like many great coaches, Cleaves gave Izzo a building block, and a chance to build a program.

Izzo’s legacy, of course, is tied to his 2000 national championship. MSU was not the best team that season. Or even the second-best team in college basketball.

Cincinnati was the consensus No. 1 until Martin’s injury in the Conference USA tournament. That opened the door for MSU to be the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Region, its friendly NCAA tournament path going from Cleveland, to Auburn Hills, to Indianapolis.

In Auburn Hills, the Spartans survived Iowa State. Izzo admits to this day that MSU wouldn’t have beaten the Marcus Fizer- and Jamaal Tinsley-led Cyclones if that game wasn’t played at The Palace.

And if Martin wasn’t injured, MSU probably would have had to deal with a healthy Cincinnati squad somewhere along the way or, at least, met Iowa State somewhere unfamiliar, without a mammoth home-court advantage.

But alas, that story is for another year (or forced today). Harvard awaits.

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