March 19, 2009 at 3:17 pm

Bob Wojnowski: 2009 NCAA Tournament

U-M takes first steps; MSU leaps for Final Four

Manny Harris is looking forward to more than a one-and-done in Michigan's first-round game tonight against Clemson. (David Guralnick/The Detroit News)

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- We know where it ends, of course, but this is where it begins. And this is how it begins for Michigan and Michigan State, a day apart, a few hundred miles apart, a world of perspective apart.

Michigan opens its first NCAA Tournament in 11 years in the land of barbecue, hoping to lick its chops and stick its long shots. If you saw the giddy reaction when the players learned they were in, facing favored Clemson tonight, you know this is one excited team taking its important first step.

Michigan State opens Friday night in Minneapolis against huge underdog Robert Morris, hoping to launch a roll all the way to Detroit. If you saw the serious countenances and heard the pointed words from Tom Izzo, you know this is one determined team, always eager to take its next step.

This is our own little study in contrasts, under the magnificent magnification of a gigantic sporting event. Michigan, a 10 seed, really wasn't supposed to be here, but John Beilein's two-year-old program arrived ahead of schedule. Yes, the Wolverines are happy to be in, thank you, but they swear they're not satisfied.

Michigan State, a two seed, always is supposed to be here, and while that doesn't rob Izzo's sterling program of revelry, it adds a touch of angst. The Spartans, dominant in the Big Ten, probably won't be truly happy unless they make it to the Final Four in Detroit. (Hey, it's a pressure worth embracing.)

Michigan knows how hard it is just to get in. Michigan State knows much more -- how hard it is to advance. Izzo said that of his 12 straight Tournament teams, this is only the third time he believed all along it had a legitimate chance to reach the Final Four. The other two -- in 2000 and 2001 -- made it.

"I think there's a little more pressure on us because it's in Detroit, but that's a good pressure," Izzo said. "I think it should be something that drives you instead of something that frightens you or makes you nervous. You get an opportunity to play in your own state, that doesn't happen to many schools anywhere. It comes around like Halley's Comet, so you try to take advantage of it."

Izzo doesn't think his players are shaken by nerves but admits he hasn't figured them out yet, and calls them fragile. That's Izzo the Honest Fretter, because deep down he really likes the ingredients, from sharp point guard Kalin Lucas to defensive menace Travis Walton to intriguing big man Goran Suton.

Both hungry

Expectations always are high for Michigan State, and that's what makes it an elite program. Well, that and four Final Four appearances in 10 years and a tremendous record under Izzo in the Tournament (26-10).

Expectations are climbing, finally, for the Wolverines. The 11-year drought in the wake of the program's humiliating scandal is over. Now, Beilein's unique style -- a funky zone defense and heavy emphasis on 3-point shooting -- makes the Wolverines a tricky matchup.

At West Virginia, Beilein took two teams to the Sweet 16 and was 5-2 in the Tournament. So here's the message from the Wolverines: Don't mistake our giddiness for contentment.

"Of course we're excited about getting in, but we can't just settle for that," leading scorer Manny Harris said. "We gotta get ready to do some damage. We definitely feel we can make a run."

You seize whenever the opportunity presents. That said, the Wolverines are in the early stages of development, so they can view this differently -- the beginning of something larger.

The Spartans' decade-plus run of success narrows their focus -- this is the beginning of something important. It's funny because Michigan would love to emulate what Michigan State has, and the Spartans probably wouldn't mind a little of the Wolverines' tension-free freshness.

"What depresses me most, or doesn't excite me most, is we haven't been as consistent as I'd like to be," Izzo said. "I think some reasons are evident (injuries) and some reasons are difficult. Why aren't we shooting the ball better? Why haven't we been as good at home as on the road?"

Izzo has mulled these questions for a while. But the truth is, Michigan State is like many college basketball powers. Just when you think you have something figured out, you don't. Just when you think you're playing your best, you stumble in the Big Ten tournament.

But with the Spartans, just when you think they're down, they're often back up. Four years ago, they endured a strangely inconsistent regular season, entered the Tournament as an overlooked five seed and stomped to the Final Four.

"I think I get like everybody else, you lose perspective," Izzo said. "You're so geared on the big picture, you forget all the little pictures and little steps along the way. Winning this conference this year is phenomenal. I would just like to see that very good team play well together, and I can't think of a better time than the week coming up."

It should be a revealing week, or two, or three, before the finale at Ford Field on April 4 and 6. Michigan State possesses Final Four material and I see it coming close, falling to top-seeded Louisville in the Midwest Regional Final.

It wouldn't surprise me if Michigan pulled the upset against Clemson but it'd be a shock if it got past Oklahoma in the next round.

Michigan State players are sporting "Humble and Hungry" T-shirts these days, and the point is well-taken. A little humbling can produce a lot of hunger. The Spartans and Wolverines may be toting different perspectives on the same path, but that's a sentiment they certainly can share.

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Michigan vs. Clemson

Tip-off: 7:10 tonight, The Sprint Center, Kansas City, Mo.
Records: No. 10 Michigan 20-13, No. 7 Clemson 23-8
Line: Clemson by 5 1/2

Robert Morris vs. Michigan State

Tip-off: 9:50 p.m. Friday, Metrodome, Minneapolis
TV/radio: CBS/WJR
Records: No. 15 Robert Morris 24-10, No. 2 Michigan State 26-6
Line: Michigan State by 17

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