Spartans cautious against No. 16 LIU Brooklyn

They have three players from San Antonio, two from Canada, two

from Maryland and a guard from Massachusetts whose basketball roots

will stay forever green.

”Celtics all the way,” Michael Culpo said.

But make no mistake, the LIU Brooklyn Blackbirds are a New York

team, a melting pot of talent with the city’s street smarts and

swagger to back it up.

Michigan State doesn’t scare them.

”We have kids from everywhere,” LIU coach Jim Ferry said

Friday. ”They fit right in in New York. They respect everybody,

but they don’t necessarily fear anybody. That’s the approach of a

New York person. They think we’re rough around the edges. We’re

not. We’re like everybody else. But the things we experience and

our approach to things, we’ve got to have respect for these guys,

no question about it.

”But I don’t see these guys backing down from anybody.”

On Friday night, the No. 16 seed Blackbirds (25-8) can make NCAA

tournament history if they can play the game of their lives and

knock off the top-seeded Spartans (27-7) in the second round of the

Midwest Regional.

LIU is a long shot.

But a shot is all the Blackbirds are asking for against the Big

Ten’s best.

”It’s going to be a tough matchup,” Culpo said. ”We played

North Carolina last year, bunch of 7-foot guys. So we’re used to

playing against bigger players. We know it’s going to be a tough

game. So we’re just hoping to be in the game with 5 minutes

left.”

The Spartans have history – a No. 1 seed has never lost to a No.

16 seed – size across the board and Draymond Green, the Big Ten

Player of the Year, on their side. It should be more than

enough.

Also, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo won’t allow his players to

overlook the Blackbirds, the two-time defending Northeast

Conference champions. He’s taken five teams to the Final Four and

won a national title by keeping his teams in the moment.

In March, Izzo makes the Spartans take small steps – one

possession, one half, one game at a time.

”We really have to take this game very seriously,” Green said.

”That’s one thing that we’ve been talking to the younger guys

about, just make sure everybody’s focused in and understands that

this is a serious game and it’s not just going to be a walk through

the park.

”We have to come up and take the game.”

LIU certainly won’t be able to spring a surprise attack.

Just as the Blackbirds were about to practice inside Nationwide

Arena for the first time, UNC-Asheville was making No. 1 seed

Syracuse sweat bullets in an East Regional game in Pittsburgh. The

Orange held on, but ripple effects of the near upset made their way

to central Ohio.

”Everybody’s talking Asheville and Syracuse,” Ferry said.

”That’s not very good for the Blackbirds, because if Michigan

State was looking away a little bit that might have woken them up a

little bit. But Coach Izzo is one of the best coaches in the game,

if not the best coach in the game.

”You can see that program doesn’t look past anybody. They play

hard. If they’re playing a high school team they’re going to play

hard. We’re going to have to beat them by playing a great

basketball game.”

Izzo just might have a great basketball team.

For months he has sensed something special about these Spartans,

who opened their season by playing North Carolina on the flight

deck of an aircraft carrier, the USS Carl Vinson, and prepared for

NCAA play with non-conference games against Duke and at

Gonzaga.

Izzo doesn’t think this Michigan State team is as talented as

his 2000 national title winner, but the group has a chemistry and

camaraderie unlike any he has seen in years.

Last week, as the Spartans were getting ready for a walkthrough

the night before playing Ohio State in the Big Ten championship,

Izzo looked across a ballroom and saw his players horsing

around.

”I told my one assistant, they’re acting like a bunch of

4-year-olds. Isn’t that great?” he said. ”And I think that kind

of speaks volumes for what this team is. They’re just a bunch of

guys that get along, have a tremendous leader, and now we’ve become

a better basketball team.”

Izzo doesn’t take anything for granted. Never has. Never

will.

As long as his team crashes the boards, runs when it has to and

plays typical defense, the Spartans should be able to handle

whatever the Blackbirds offer.

It’s attention to detail that has gotten Izzo to 15 straight

NCAA tournaments, and it’s what he hopes carries the Spartans to

the top in this one.

”I’m just kind of setting my sights on seeing if we can win one

more game, one more game, one more game, ” he said. ”If we can do

that, we can make an incredible season into a magical one.”