When Michigan State meets North Carolina tonight in Detroit, a national championship and all its attendant rewards, such as trophies and banners, will be on the line. But there is no trophy, no banner, to commemorate an achievement that is harder to quantify but is no less deserving of praise. In fact, a case can be made that the Tar Heels and Spartans are playing not just to see who is the team of the year but the team of the decade as well.
While success from November through February is to be admired, it is the March résumé that truly determines a team's worthiness for such an accolade. Thus, any team wishing to stake its claim as the team of the decade must have at least one national championship to its credit. That eliminates perennial powers such as Kentucky, Arizona and Louisville. Multiple Final Four appearances are also crucial.
The only programs who fit that criteria are tonight's combatants, each of whom has won one national title and is making its decade-best fourth Final Four appearance, plus Florida (two national titles, three Final Fours), Duke (one title, two Final Fours), Connecticut (one and two) Kansas (one and three) and Maryland (one and two).
Despite averaging a stellar 29.1 wins per season since 2000, Duke is eliminated because of its consistent failure to get beyond the Sweet 16 (the Blue Devils have not advanced to the Elite Eight since 2004, and have lost six times in the regional semifinals this decade). Florida is the only program to win two titles, doing so in back-to-back years in 2006 and '07, but the championship glow has dimmed as the Gators became the first champion in the 64-team era (since 1985) to miss the tournament two-consecutive seasons. Kansas has had more tournament success (26 wins) in the decade than any other school, but will fall short of either the Tar Heels or Spartans in both titles and Final Four visits, as will UConn.
That leaves the North Carolina and Michigan State. Being the team of the decade is an arbitrary measure to be sure, but it would be a significant achievement for either program, one for cementing its place at the top and the other for establishing residency there. The Tar Heels have long been known as the IBM of college basketball for their sustained excellence stretching back to the 1950s, but their struggles at the start of the decade (including an 8-20 season in 2002, a 16-loss season in 2003 and 14 losses in 2000) made it nearly impossible to be considered the best team in this decade. But over the past five seasons, the Tar Heels have advanced to three Final Fours and now reached two championship games to help re-establish their program among the nation's elite, a status that is all but taken for granted in Chapel Hill.
"I do believe it is very difficult," said Roy Williams on Sunday when asked about not only reaching the top but staying there. "You know, my goal for my team every year is for our team to be in the mix that people can talk about that has a chance to win the whole thing. Every year there's 20 teams, 15, you pick a number, that really has a chance to win a national championship. And my dream is for my team to be one of those every year. To get over that hump, to get to that level, is extremely hard. I've been fortunate because Kansas, when I got there, yeah, we had some problems, but it has a pretty good tradition and history. North Carolina, when I came back, yeah, we'd had some problems, but tradition and history is pretty doggone good. [This year] there has been a target on our back. But I'd much rather have a target on my back than be the team that nobody thinks is going to be any good. I like having really good teams."
The Tar Heels have been really good for really long, as have the Spartans, though they have rarely been accorded the same respect. In reaching five of the past 11 Final Fours, Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo has built his program into a consistent winner that can challenge any blue-blooded program in America, as evidenced by tournament wins in recent years over such standard-bearers as Kentucky, Duke and Syracuse, and this season, defending national champion Kansas plus one-seeds Louisville and UConn.
Yet the one program Michigan State has consistently failed to beat in the tournament is the same one that is standing in its way on Monday night. North Carolina beat the Spartans in the Sweet 16 in 1998, the national semifinals in 2005 and the second round in 2007.
"I feel like I have so much more to build," Izzo said on Sunday. "I love the Dukes, Carolinas, Kentuckys, Kansas. I'm not going to see that in my lifetime because they've done it for so many years, but I love aspiring to be those. Some of these guys have been doing things for 50 years. We're not there yet."
With a win on Monday night, they will be.