MSU aims for familiarity, UT for history

ST. LOUIS -- Baseball has a million rites of spring, but college basketball has one of its own, too:

The presence of Michigan State at an interview podium on an NCAA tournament regional off day.

There is Tom Izzo in the middle, with a wry smile on his face. Flanking him are five players. The faces have changed over the years, from Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson to Jason Richardson and Charlie Bell to Alan Anderson and Paul Davis to Travis Walton and Goran Suton. Now it's Draymond Green and Durrell Summers.

Seems like it happens every year. The grass turns green, and so does the Big Dance.

Since 1999, no school has won more NCAA tourney games than the Spartans. They are 32-10 in that span, having reached five Final Fours, won one national title and played in the title game last year. Now they are 40 minutes away from one more trip to college basketball's most elite destination.

"This is what you play for," Izzo said Friday night. "At least, this is what I play for."

And he plays to win. Izzo is 5-1 in regional finals.

The last impediment to another Michigan State Final Four is Tennessee, which is the anti-Sparty. The Volunteers have never been here before, never seen the inside of an Elite Eight. Not with Ernie and Bernie, not with Allan Houston, not with Dale Ellis or Dyron Nix or Chris Lofton.

The sight of the Vols on the same interview podium, right after the Spartans, is just a little jarring.

"They're an experienced team, and their team has been to the national championship game before," Tennessee forward Wayne Chism said. "And they are playing a Tennessee team that hasn't been there before -- but an experienced Tennessee team."

And a talented Tennessee team. The Vols have been a bit crazy this year -- beating Kansas and Kentucky, being blown out by USC and Georgia -- but they have players.

So the questions are these:

How much does that regional final experience tilt the game in favor of Michigan State and its brilliant March coach?

How much does Tennessee's unfamiliarity with this stage hinder its chance to take down the Spartans?

Theoretically, the experience factor should be significant. But there has to be a first time for everything. And fact is, the roles here are a crisp reversal from 1999.

Back then, Izzo and the Spartans were the newbies. Standing in their path to the school's first Final Four in 20 years was a Kentucky team steeped in NCAA success.

The Wildcats had played in three straight national title games, from 1996-98, winning two of them. They were the ones who knew their way around the big-game block. Michigan State was considered too callow to compete with the Cats.

Then Kentucky hit the Spartans flush in the mouth to start the game, roaring to a 17-4 lead. But once Michigan State found its footing, there was no stopping it. Izzo's team won 73-66 -- the victory that truly established him in East Lansing.

"Having experience helps, but it doesn't win games for you," Izzo said. "The games are won on the court. The games aren't won by the coaches or the secretaries that know the systems -- that helps with the distractions, and sometimes that's very important. But as I've always said, players play the game and the game will be won by players. That's what's so neat about it."

Tennessee's players certainly find that neat, and insist that they're ready for this moment.

"One of the reasons we came to Tennessee is to be in a position like this," point guard Bobby Maze said. "It's not a surprise that we don't get overwhelmed by it. We believe that we are supposed to be here and we have very high expectations of ourselves.

"Some people have us as an underdog, and to us it's a joke. It drives us even more to succeed. Every game we've played in the tournament we have been picked to lose. That's funny."

Actually, Bobby, nobody picked No. 14 seed Ohio to beat Tennessee. And very few people picked No. 11 seed San Diego State. So there's a reality check for you.

Ohio State? That's another matter. And in this game, the Volunteers are probably considered an underdog as well, just based on the Izzo Factor alone.

But if Izzo can get this team -- dysfunctional at times, and limping now without point guard Kalin Lucas and with other assorted injuries -- it will be his finest Final Four achievement.

Still, it wouldn't be a shock to see him and his wry smile on an interview podium again next week in Indianapolis. In college basketball, some things are simply rites of spring.

Pat Forde is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPN4D@aol.com.