SPOKANE, Wash. — After Michigan State put Delaware to bed in their NCAA Tournament opener Thursday, the natural question was just how much the Spartans knew about their next opponent.
But it didn’t seem as though Harvard was even on their radar, even after the Crimson held fifth-seeded Cincinnati at bay for a 61-57 win.
“We’re not familiar with them,” said freshman guard Alvin Ellis III. “We’re going to watch some film tonight and tomorrow. Learn their plays and see where it takes us Saturday.”
Senior guard Keith Appling acknowledged that the Spartans would need a crash course on the four-time reigning Ivy League champs.
“We don’t know much about them,” Appling said. “We saw them play Cincinnati a little bit, but we’ll get familiar with them here in the next few hours.”
On the flip side, Harvard might not have known its opponent after walking off the floor, but the Crimson knew Michigan State’s track record and where the Spartans stood on the NCAA Tournament totem pole.
“I know Michigan State is a favorite to win it all,” said senior guard Brandyn Curry. “That speaks volumes for the high regard that people hold them.”
As it turns out, the two teams have plenty in common going into their third-round matchup Saturday (8:40 p.m., TNT).
Both teams came into the tournament scorching hot.
Michigan State buzzed through the Big Ten tournament, defeating Northwestern, No. 12 Wisconsin, and No. 8 Michigan on the way to its fourth conference title.
Harvard sawed through the Ivy League, winning eight straight to end the regular season. After clinching its fourth straight league championship and third straight NCAA appearance, Harvard became the fashionable Cinderella pick this year.
Crimson coach Tommy Amaker and Spartans coach Tom Izzo have a history going back to the early 1990s when they were both assistant coaches — Amaker at Duke, Izzo at Michigan State — recruiting Chris Webber.
They got even more familiar with each other during Amaker’s six-year run as head coach at Michigan.
Izzo praised his counterpart.
“He’s a great recruiter and a good coach, who relates well to people,” Izzo said.
They faced each other 10 times, and Izzo usually got the better of Amaker, going 7-3. But they developed a such a mutual respect that when Amaker was fired in 2007 after a 22-13 season, Izzo voiced his disappointment.
“To be honest, I’m a friend of Tommy Amaker’s, and that’s hard when you’re rivals,” Izzo told the New York Times in 2007. “But I think if our profession’s getting to the point where you win 20 games and you’re getting fired, I think it’s sad.
“And I think, not to take a knock at anybody, but administrations better look at, they want coaches to perform miracles, then administrations have to do the same. And I’m not sure, in fairness to him after the mess he took over, that was done.
“I feel for bad him as a coach. I feel bad for him as a friend. And I feel bad for our profession that guys with 20 wins are getting fired in programs that really, I don’t think they’ve stressed basketball there.”
Seven years later, Amaker has built a brand-name program at Harvard with players who believe — and have proven — that they can compete with anyone, in the Ivy League or a power conference.
“We just think that if we come out and play our game and don’t try to do anything different that we’ll have a good chance of beating anybody that we match up against,” said junior guard Wesley Saunders.
“And so that’s what we try to come out and do and we have kind of embraced being the underdog and we were able to come out and get a victory.”
The Crimson, a 12th seed, knew they were making a statement in winning a tournament game for the second straight year.
“We definitely wanted to make a statement that we can compete at the national level,” said forward Steve Moundou-Missi.
With their overwhelming size and rugged style, the Spartans will be present a challenge the Crimson haven’t seen this season.
It starts with senior forward Adreian Payne, whose 41-point onslaught on Delaware set a record for a Spartan in a tournament game and was a Spokane Arena high.
The fact that a 6-foot-10-inch forward nailed four 3-pointers, drained all 17 of his free throws, and grabbed 8 boards was a clear indication that he is a different breed.
After it all, Payne acknowledged the obvious: He was in the zone.
“When you’re scoring like that and your game’s coming so easy to you, and you make a lot of shots, it feels like you’re in a rhythm,” Payne said. “It feels like you can’t be stopped.”
They might not know much about the Crimson, but the Spartans know enough not to write them off.
“It’s not surprising,” said Ellis. “It’s the NCAA Tournament. Everybody’s going to play hard. There’s going to be upsets every day. We’re just going to have to be ready to play when our time is here.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.