Adreian Payne has used a strong senior season to move up NBA mock draft boards. (Dale G. Young / Detroit News)
If they get a moment, between practices and interviews and travel and meetings, they should relish this run. Contrary to expectations, it doesn’t happen every year, and for some it’ll never happen again.
Michigan and Michigan State have as many gifted players at the same time as they’ve had. Both are slight favorites to win Friday night over Tennessee and Virginia, respectively, so the state of Michigan could fill 25 percent of the Elite Eight. Different teams, different styles, different timetables, but essentially the same task — outrace time.
Tom Izzo has his best team in more than a decade, the pre-Tournament pick by many. He has two seniors — Adreian Payne and Keith Appling — making their final run and a sophomore, Gary Harris, possibly making his. John Beilein is hunting a second straight Final Four and a first national title, and also has talented players teasing time.
Both programs are built to last, no doubt, but both teams could look considerably different next year. In college basketball, Last Hurrahs occur every season, sometimes out of nowhere, from players leaving early to Tournament runs ending suddenly. It’s the appeal of the game, and a constant source of stress.
If this isn’t Izzo’s last best run, it’s one of his last best runs, and no, I’m not suggesting he’ll leave for the Pistons or any other job. Amid speculation from NBA circles, Izzo said he’s had no contact with Pistons owner Tom Gores and has denied the possibility in increasingly strident tones, from his standard “never say never” to his “150 percent no” comment on a national radio show.
Might he listen to an NBA team if Michigan State wins the national championship? Perhaps. The college game has gotten tougher and recruiting is a grind. But Izzo, 59, has said he’d like to coach five more years, and knows he has it good as one of the game’s icons.
“I don’t think the grass is greener somewhere else,” Izzo said. “I doubt I’d leave here because I think I could win another one. I do. I’m gonna chase (Mike) Krzyzewski until I’m done. He’s won four (national titles), we won one. That keeps me going in itself.”
Career mortality always intrudes in sports, and the Tournament stuffs it into a sweaty, teary package. The Wolverines have only one senior, captain Jordan Morgan, but know how quickly it can be over. When you’re young and talented, you’re always tempted. As many as three Michigan underclassmen — Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary — and two from Michigan State — Harris, Branden Dawson — could consider a jump to the NBA.
Unfortunately, a leap often is disguised as a tug, or a push. All the look-ahead talk gets tiring, and I apologize for adding to it. But as long as the NBA has its one-and-done rule, there will be unrealistic pressures shadowing players this time of year, the time they should be enjoying the most.
“I know (the NBA) is an opportunity I may have at the end of the year,” said Stauskas, the Big Ten player of the year considered a mid-first-round pick. “But at this point, how many times do you have the opportunity to play in the Tournament with a really good team that has a chance to win it all? So I don’t want to look too far ahead. I just want to enjoy these moments with these guys and go as far as we can.”
It’s the delicate balance that’s so hard to strike. Stauskas plays with a joyful flair that’s fun to watch, and it’s no secret the NBA is watching closely. Robinson is showing more confidence and urgency, and it’s staggering how fickle the game can be. A year ago, McGary was the breakout star, perhaps a first-round pick. He returned, underwent back surgery and now is pegged as a second-rounder. If that convinces him to stay, it’s not a bad thing.
Meanwhile, Morgan was barely playing a year ago, slowed by injury and McGary’s emergence. Now he’s the team’s passionate leader, and after his sensational performance against Texas’ big men, Morgan was asked where he found the motivation.
“I don’t want to go home, man,” he said, his voice low. “I don’t want to go home. Last year was magical, and I just want to experience that again.”
One more chance — it’s the chant of the Tournament. Beilein laments the anointing of the next hot player, the escalation of expectations. Seniors are uniquely motivated but so are underclassmen. Last year, Michigan reached the title game with Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., who made their mark and were ready to move on.
Ideally, players wouldn’t be racing through their college careers, defined by one Tournament, and the public wouldn’t obsess about it. The most touted freshmen in the country, Duke’s Jabari Parker and Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins, felt the heat and were ousted early. Few feel it more than Michigan State, such a popular pick, Izzo joked his team got the nod from “the two presidents — President Obama and President Vitale.”
Payne and Appling are trying to avoid becoming the first four-year players under Izzo not to reach a Final Four, another of those weights that can lift or crush.
“I don’t put that pressure on them,” Izzo said. “I put the pressure on them, though, that if you’re a great college basketball player, you should want to experience a Final Four. It’s the banners hanging that last more than your lifetime.”
That’s why determined seniors are so valued, because time is tapping them on the shoulder. Look at Tennessee’s numbers and you’re not overly impressed. Beilein looks at the Volunteers lineup with three senior starters and is duly warned. Tennessee has lost once in its past nine games — to No. 1 Florida.
Virginia is just as loaded with experience, and has lost once in its past 19 games. It’s a No. 1 seed for a reason, a defensive group that has played together for a while, similar to Michigan State.
Payne returned for his final season to improve his game and win it all, and scored 41 in the opening victory over Delaware. Appling is fighting the hardest, from foul trouble to wrist issues. When Harvard rallied against Michigan State, Appling suggested he got scared at the possibility of losing — an appropriate and dangerous emotion.
“Keith Appling is the toughest guy I got,” Izzo said. “I hate to use the word scared because I think that’s wimpy. But there is some truth to it. I feel a sense of urgency. This senior class has to worry about the President picking you, the last game, the streak we have. He’s got added pressures a lot of seniors don’t have.”
The Sweet 16 is next, and maybe the Final Four. The end is near for some, ready or not, regrets or not. For players and coaches and fans, here’s the simplest advice possible: Enjoy it while you can.