March 21, 2013 at 7:03 pm

Bob Wojnowski

Michigan, MSU can make a run to Atlanta - but so can many others

Michigan State and Michigan practice in front of f...
Michigan State and Michigan practice in front of f...: Both teams prepare to play Thursday in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.

Auburn Hills -- It used to be the plaintive plea of college basketball's underprivileged, the double-digit underdogs with the double-digit seeds.

Why not us?

Now it's the persistent plea of, well, just about everyone. It could even be a question posed by Michigan's John Beilein and Michigan State's Tom Izzo, who emerged from Big Ten battles with talented teams intact, but psyches slightly cracked.

This is the latest twist in the NCAA Tournament's evolution, and a reason the Wolverines and Spartans might be better positioned than we realize. Every team that shows up at The Palace today, from 14th-seeded Valparaiso to No. 13 South Dakota State, believes it has a chance.

Heck, Virginia Commonwealth has shocked so often, it's officially elevated from long shot to big shot (sort of).

As parity spreads like spilled paint, there's a flip side. While more upstarts leap up, more higher-seeded teams have a legitimate shot at the Final Four, without an overwhelming favorite blocking anyone's path. I'd say 25 of the 64 teams could reach the Final Four, and a dozen have a chance to win it.

And yes, the No. 3 Spartans and No. 4 Wolverines can make cases. Michigan has, arguably, the best player in the country in Trey Burke. Michigan State has one of the premier coaches in Izzo. I know it's not popular to suggest either team can make a run after missed opportunities in the Big Ten, but I'll say it: Either team can make a run.

'There's more land mines'

Everybody in college basketball has slipped on wet spots, including top seeds Louisville, Indiana, Duke and Gonzaga. Any of five Big Ten teams — Michigan, Michigan State, Indiana, Ohio State, Wisconsin — could end up in Atlanta. The Wolverines were ranked No. 1 for a week, and at 26-7, haven't lost to a non-Big Ten team. But during a 6-6 finish, Beilein tried to reenergize his players by asking the question — Why not us?

"I think we've played really well," Beilein said Wednesday. "We played Indiana as tough as anybody and easily could've won. I think we got refreshed enough these last couple days that we're ready to play. I just sense it in their eyes, their legs, everything I see."

Michigan is a heavy favorite against South Dakota State, and Michigan State is an equally heavy favorite against Valparaiso. But perspective can get cloudy in a grueling Big Ten season, and familiarity can reveal flaws. Sometimes, I wonder if we focus on the smudges too much, instead of the teams' talent.

Nationally, expectations remain high. Dick Vitale picked Michigan in his Final Four, along with Indiana, Ohio State and Louisville. Analysts Digger Phelps and Jay Williams pegged Michigan State for Atlanta.

"Realistically, you could look at the glass half full or half empty," Izzo said. "You could say we have just as good a chance as anybody, and I believe you.

"Yet there's more land mines because everybody is pretty similar."

Izzo points out the Spartans played every game close. He likes the pieces, but still yearns for a fiery leader such as Draymond Green, and would love to see more steadiness out of Keith Appling.

While Valparaiso starts five seniors, is adept shooting 3-pointers and has a versatile star in Ryan Broekhoff, Michigan State has a menacing frontline in Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix. And Gary Harris' shoulder is feeling better. And you might have heard, the Spartans win a lot of games in March.

'Fun and confident'

It's an interesting contrast. Michigan State has interior toughness, but perhaps lacks a floor leader. Michigan has the best floor leader, but lacks interior toughness.

Burke is the guy who makes it all go, and if this is his final run before the NBA, he's driven to make it last longer than the first-round loss to Ohio last season. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Nik Stauskas need to shoot well, and Jordan Morgan needs to find his confidence, but if you have Burke, you can make a run.

"We've definitely matured since the start of the year," Burke said. "The sense of urgency is raised from this point forward. I think you'll see a team similar to what you saw earlier, having fun and being confident."

It's the power of the Last Run. Nix has been more and more vocal and so has Burke. But there are last-run guys on the other teams too, including South Dakota State senior guard Nate Wolters. He's become a quasi-cult figure for his shooting, and scored 53 points in a game. He's fairly certain South Dakota State won't be intimidated playing in front of a pro-Michigan crowd.

The days of teams from, say, the Summit League, quivering in the presence of power conference brutes are over.

"We've played enough BCS schools in tough atmospheres, that gives us a ton of confidence," Wolters said. "We won at New Mexico this year, and that's one of the toughest places to play in the country. The odds are against us, but you see Cinderella teams every year. We got a lot of experience and we can shoot the ball, so if we get hot, we can play with anyone."

Almost anyone can play with anyone, more true than trite.

Why not us? The double-digit seedlings harbor double-deep hopes, and nothing really scares them. For that reason, after a taxing season, the Spartans and Wolverines should be ready for anything.

bob.wojnowski@detroitnews.com

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Michigan has, arguably, the best player in the country in Trey Burke. / Robin Buckson/Detroit News
Sophomore guard Branden Dawson and Michigan State are looking for the ... (Dale G. Young/Detroit News)
Michigans Glenn Robinson III, at practice Wednesday, averaged 10.7 points ... (John T. Greilick/Detroit News)