TV team impressed with Spartans' 'will to win'

Tony Paul
The Detroit News
Bill Raftery and Grant Hill talk to Tom Izzo before MSU's NCAA Tournament game against Georgia on March 20.

Jim Nantz's first Final Four as the lead play-by-play announcer was 1991, and the voice of CBS Sports is seeing a lot of similarities with this year's field.

In 1991, there was the favorite looking for an undefeated season, in UNLV. There were four Hall of Fame coaches, in Dean Smith, Roy Williams, Jerry Tarkanian and Mike Krzyzewski. It was in Indianapolis.

The Final Four is back in Indy, starting Saturday, with Kentucky and John Calipari looking for that elusive perfect season.

Standing in the way are Michigan State, Wisconsin and Duke, coached by legends Tom Izzo, Bo Ryan and Krzyzewksi, who led Duke to its first national championship in Nantz's first year on the call.

"This is 1991 all over again," Nantz said Tuesday afternoon on a conference call with reporters. "It's so similar, it's almost eerie."

Nantz, Bill Raftery and former Pistons and Duke star Grant Hill will be calling the Final Four games -- Saturday's Kentucky-Wisconsin and Duke-Michigan State games on TBS, and Monday's championship game on CBS.

It's the first year doing TV for the Final Four for Raftery, who's an NCAA Tournament staple, having done the Final Four on radio for many years.

The booth is all new, with CBS having to move quickly after suspending Greg Anthony in January after Anthony was arrested for soliciting a prostitute. Raftery and Hill both said they were stunned and thrilled to get the call, and the trio has done 12 games together, including the Big Ten tournament earlier this month.

At the Big Ten tournament in Chicago, Nantz, Raftery and Hill got an up-close look at a Michigan State team that had struggled during the regular season but seemed to be figuring it out. MSU lost to Wisconsin, in overtime, in the final; moments later, MSU was named a No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

"We were speculating MSU might be anywhere from a 4 to a 6 seed, and when they came out as a 7, everyone thought right away, 'Michigan State's better than that,'" Nantz said. "You saw a team that was truly coming together, everyone understands their roles, you saw seniors stepping up, especially Travis Trice. There was a cetain level of confidence clicking."

That confidence carried over into the NCAA Tournament, where MSU toughed out wins against No. 10 seed Georgia, then No. 2 Virginia, then No. 3 Oklahoma, and finally No. 4 Louisville to make the Final Four for the seventh time under Izzo.

The run caught many off-guard, even though Izzo has a history of taking less-talented teams to the Final Four, as he did with No. 5 seeds in 2005 and 2010.

Nantz, Raftery and Hill saw the Spartans up-close, again, in Charlotte, North Carolina, for their first two games of the NCAA Tournament.

"He has an incredible ability to make a team better during the course of the year," Raftery said of Izzo. "He doesn't mind playing anybody to get there.

"He just instills a tremendous, obvious will to win. They believe in one another."

MSU doesn't have a whole lot of believers outside of the program, at least it won't in the Final Four, where it's by far the longest long-shot to win the championship.

Izzo and Krzyzewski are meeting for the 10th time in their storied careers, and Duke has gotten the better of MSU eight of the first nine times. The one exception was in 2005, when the Spartans beat the Blue Devils in the Sweet 16.

Duke beat MSU comfortably earlier this year, also in Indianapolis, though that doesn't say much for either team; both are playing much better now.

"That's all in the past," Hill said of MSU's struggles against Duke. "It's about these current teams, these personalities, the talent on these teams and not about what happened 10, 15 years ago. I like this matchup.

"I want to see these two giants, these two legendary coaches go at it. I think either team is capable of advancing to the finals, even possibly winning it, even with Kentucky and all they've done and accomplished. Any one of these teams can be crowned the NCAA champion. I get goosebumps just thinking about it."

The big question on everyone's mind will be whether anybody can beat Kentucky. The popular answer is no, but the conventional wisdom is yes -- after all, Notre Dame nearly did it in the Elite Eight, and Wisconsin is viewed by most as a tougher matchup than Notre Dame.

Of course, in 1991, nobody was sure anybody could beat UNLV either. But Duke eked out a two-point win that year, and then beat Kansas in the final game. If Wisconsin beats Kentucky, it sets up the potential for an all-Big Ten final, or there could also be a Kentucky-Duke final -- and then, of course, enough Christian Laettner highlight clips to make all of Lexington nauseous.

The possibilities are fantastic, just like in 1991, back in Indianapolis, with a young, 31-year-old named Nantz on the call.

"I'm not into overhyping anything," Nantz said. "The reaction by the viewership says a lot about the excitement around this tournament.

"I hope it plays out to be just as thrilling as 25 tournaments ago."