DETROIT -- In the aftermath, they went to the Red Lobster in Lansing, ordered shrimp and crab legs, and made resolutions. On Dec. 3, 2008, Michigan State's duo from Detroit, point guard Kalin Lucas and small forward Durrell Summers, had suffered through the indignity of a 98-63 loss to top-ranked North Carolina at Ford Field in their hometown. Lucas said he considered this nothing short of "an embarrassment." His friends and family had all been in the stands to witness the Spartans' flop. So when he and his roommate, Summers, went out to eat on Dec. 4, "We told each other that we'd do whatever it took to get back to Detroit" -- meaning the Final Four in April. Summers said they agreed on one other thing: "To never let that" -- a loss of that magnitude -- "happen again."
Four months and two days after that meal, Lucas and Summers can say they've met the first goal: They went on to win the Big Ten regular-season title, earn a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, knock off defending champ Kansas and upset top-seeded Louisville to reach the Final Four. Once there, in front of a record crowd of 72,456, more than two-thirds of them clad in green-and-white, Michigan State beat another No. 1 seed, UConn. Lucas scored 21 and Summers added 10, and the most famous Spartan of all-time, Earvin "Magic" Johnson, stood outside the locker room and said, "This seems like a team of destiny." On the 30th anniversary of Magic's title team, the Spartans are on the precipice of winning the school's third national championship. But standing in the way of destiny is the same juggernaut that was here in December: North Carolina. Can Lucas and Summers really prevent the disaster from repeating itself?
I worry that, despite the resolve of State's players, and the heartwarming side-plot of them lifting up a downtrodden Detroit, their fate may have been sealed (in a bad way) on Dec. 3. Ever heard of the blowout rule? This was a concept SI's Alex Wolff introduced in a 2001 NCAA tournament preview story on the subject of "toughness." Wolff wrote that only one team in the quarter-century leading up to that story -- North Carolina in 1993 -- had suffered a loss of more than 25 points and gone on to win a national title. The Tar Heels lost by 26 to Wake Forest that season, but didn't have to play the Demon Deacons in the NCAA tournament. The blowout rule has held up in every season since, too: The 2002 Maryland team came the closest to breaking it with a 21-point loss to Duke in the regular season. If I may dauntingly re-frame the rule in the context of these Spartans, consider it this way: In the three decades since Magic's team cut down the nets in Salt Lake City -- essentially the modern age of college basketball -- no team has lost a regular-season game by more than 26 points and won the NCAA tournament. Michigan State, mind you, lost to Carolina by 35.
The standard disclaimer here is that the Spartans weren't the same team then that they are now. You heard it from them Sunday, and you heard it from North Carolina's players, too (Ty Lawson: "They're a different team now;" Danny Green: "They're a different team than the one we saw;" Tyler Hansbrough: "They're a different team now"). There were some extenuating circumstances surrounding that loss: Michigan State had just played three games over Thanksgiving weekend at the Old Spice Classic in Orlando; senior leader Travis Walton had to take a final exam back in East Lansing that day; and the biggest one of all, the fact that "G" -- senior center Goran Suton -- "wasn't even in the building," as coach Tom Izzo puts it. Suton had been sent back to campus the morning of the game to have his knee examined, and didn't return to the lineup until Dec. 17.
But even under optimal conditions, with the Spartans at full-strength, how different would that game have been? Not all that much, Izzo admits. "If we had everybody perfect, the way [North Carolina] played that night, instead of winning by 35, they could have beat us by 20." This would have brought Michigan State out of blowout-rule territory ... but it still would have been a 20-point loss to the team its playing Monday night. So why should we believe that there's any chance of a different result in the national-title game?
The hope, within the Michigan State ranks, revolves around the game plan, for Izzo is regarded as one of the best postseason coaches of all-time, having taken five teams in the Final Four in 11 years. His tactical work in this NCAA tournament has been second-to-none: In the Elite Eight he made top-overall seed Louisville, previously known as masters of the press, grind to a halt, score zero fastbreak points, and lose 64-52. In the Final Four he made UConn, previously known as masters of the paint, gain no advantage on the glass and lose 82-73. Izzo's game plans have a way of making elite teams look like shells of their former selves, and he's well aware that, given the disparity in NBA talent on the two rosters Monday night, he must make Carolina not look like Carolina. "If we play good and they play good, we're losing -- that's the way I look at it," Izzo said. "They're the best team in the country. ... But we found a way to have some teams not play as good against us. So we've just got to play good and have them play a little less than good."
The Spartans' game plan for Carolina began taking shape Wednesday, when the assistant coach assigned to scout the Tar Heels, Dwayne Stephens, started poring over 15 games (or 30 hours) worth of video, which would later be cut down into a "long edit" of 400 clips. After Michigan State beat UConn in the first game on Saturday, which concluded after 8 p.m. ET, video coordinator Jordan Ott jumped into the back of a Michigan State trooper's car, carrying an external hard drive filled with game files, and was escorted back to the Somerset Inn in suburban Troy, Mich., to begin setting up clips for the coaches' arrival. Izzo left the North Carolina-Villanova game at halftime, and Ott had a 15-minute video package ready for him to review right away. The short edit -- 50 clips selected from the original 400 -- is what the coaches and team reviewed Saturday night, and the staff stayed up until 3 a.m. discussing strategy. "How well we get back and defend their 'earlies'" -- the shots they take in the first 10 seconds of the possession -- "is going to be big," Stephens said.
Ott, a 24-year-old from McConnellsburg, Pa., who walked into the Michigan State basketball office two years ago and got a job as a graduate assistant, was named the team's video coordinator this offseason. His goal is to eventually get into coaching, and he's been able to witness plenty of Izzo's scouting-session genius first-hand. "He's incredible at picking up the little things," Ott said, and in the Louisville game, there were two key observations Izzo made in their film reviews at the Indianapolis Hilton: The first was that Suton could exploit the opening around the foul line in Louisville's extended zone. Suton finished the game with 19 points on 7-of-15 shooting. The second was even more important: Ott and the staff went back and looked at how the Cardinals had pressed a number of different teams this season. Izzo locked in on footage of Cincinnati, which mostly cleared out and allowed point guard Deonta Vaughn to walk the ball up the floor. "Coach [Izzo] picked that up late on Saturday night," Ott said, "and he said, 'Man, this might be a way to break it.'" The Spartans slowed the game down to a Big Ten pace -- and then later, in the second half, when Louisville expected the ball to be walked up, they surprised them by having Lucas blitz the zone pressure.
When scouting UConn, Ott said Izzo talked about staying low when getting position for rebounds, because if it became an "arms match" -- with Huskies big men Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien using their length and strength against the Spartans frontcourt -- then State would have little chance of winning. Suton (seven rebounds), Raymar Morgan (eight) and Delvon Roe (nine) stayed low and improbably finished even in the rebounding war 42-42. Izzo's second point was that Thabeet was so slow getting down the floor in UConn's transition game that the man guarding him could be used to "corral" Huskies guard A.J. Price, who's generally dangerous on the break. UConn scored just 10 fastbreak points compared to Michigan State's 22, and Price finished with 15 points on 5-of-20 shooting.
Izzo makes a promise to his players when they head into a two-game NCAA tournament weekend: "You get me through the first game, and I feel good that I can help you get through the second." He has the information-distribution down to a science, in part gleaned from football buddies such as former Lions coach Steve Mariucci, who was in the locker room Sunday. Izzo keeps teams meetings short (to 15-20 minutes) and frequent (up to 5-6 times per day) because he feels that the game plan soaks in better that way. But North Carolina will be the biggest test of all, because none of the Spartans' schemes worked the first time around: Tyler Hansbrough gashed them for 25 points in 27 minutes, Lawson scored 17, dished out eight assists and didn't turn the ball over once, while Lucas coughed it up five times and scored just six points. The only thing the Tar Heels seemed to admire about Izzo's plan was one of his pick-and-roll plays: UNC coach Roy Williams tells his players to keep an eye out for things they like from other teams' offenses, and freshman Ed Davis said they took one of Izzo's sets and put it into their own offense the next week, calling it "Michigan State."
But Davis bids Izzo good luck in figuring out how to plan against this Carolina team, even if they do use one of his own plays against him: "We have so many weapons," Davis said, "that if you stop Ty, then you've gotta stop Danny [Green], or if you stop Wayne [Ellington], then you've gotta stop Deon [Thompson], and so on, so I don't really know what possible game plan they could use."
Therein lies the problem. If Carolina is playing on top of its game, it's impossible to beat, no matter what maneuvers Izzo makes, or resolutions Lucas and Summers have already made, or destiny-related feelings Magic might be having. A win on Monday night, three decades after Magic brought home the school's first title, would be a dream ending in Detroit. But only in a dream world, where the blowout rule didn't make their 35-point loss to the Tar Heels look so ominous, would it be easy to imagine the Spartans pulling off such a reversal.