When the top 65 teams in the land come to play, hometown allegiances die hard.
Now, with only four teams remaining, Elis from Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and North Carolina own bragging rights. Some maintain their fanaticism to stay linked to home, but Peter Barkett ’07 has a different theory: “Secretly a part of us all wishes we had gone to the big state school with all of our friends.” Whatever their reasons may be, Bulldogs with ties to Final Four contenders are cheering that much louder.
MICHIGAN STATE VS. NORTH CAROLINA, Saturday, April 2, 8:37 p.m.
“In the same way that immigrants maintain their culture in a foreign country, I see strong pride for the home team,” Vera Tzoneva ’08 explained. “I have never been a Michigan State fan, but I would not only love a championship win, I am excited and hopeful for the game.”
Even the diehard Michigan fans are showing love for the “Sparty,” as Patrick Dantzer ’06 calls his beloved Michigan State, a perfect demonstration of home-state pride. Part of the reason for such a concession from Wolverine fans is MSU Head Coach Tom Izzo.
“He’s sort of the man, being a Michigan native and the savior of MSU hoops,” Dantzer explained.
Izzo’s coaching abilities aside, most Eli-Spartans felt that UNC will underestimate State’s abilities — both as a Big Ten team and as a lower seed.
“I don’t want to play the annual lack-of-respect card,” Kyle Brooks ’05 said. “But that only adds fuel to the MSU fire. They know no one expected them to be [in the Final Four].”
But is there more to the Green-and-White than the united support of the state of Michigan and the Midwest chip on their shoulder?
“MSU’s not very deep up front, so if [starting center] Paul Davis gets into foul trouble, we could be in trouble,” Courtland Keteyian ’06 said, evaluating the MSU personnel. “But we have four swingmen that can rotate between the two, three and four, making a much quicker lineup [than Carolina], so I’m predicting match-up problems on both ends of the floor.”
In Dantzer’s opinion, Carolina’s wealth of NBA prospects — in his estimation “five or six” — is no match for MSU’s team-oriented style.
“I’m confident that playing with the intensity and cohesion of the past few games, MSU can win it all,” Brooks added.
A self-professed Tar Heel fanatic, Benjamin Cohen ’06 disagreed wholeheartedly.
“The team works together flawlessly like the cars that are made to be put on show,” Cohen said. “They can manhandle an opponent with power like a pride of lions taking down their prey, then the next moment, finish with finesse as soft as a mother’s touch.”
According to Meg Shea ’07 and other Carolina fans, devotion is an art form — no distance comes between the ‘Heels and their faithful.
Cohen will stop at nothing to watch a Carolina game. “If I can’t get the game on TV, I’m at TK’s, all by myself on Sunday afternoon if I have to,” Cohen said.
“I follow the games online and by bumming off of other people’s cable,” Shea said. “I wear Carolina gear … especially after a hard loss to show that I still love them.”
It’s hard not to love a team that is 30-4, but Carolina fans are quick to mention that they endured an 8-20 season just three years ago, a true low in the school’s history.
Through all of that, “Carolina Basketball gives its fans a reason to live,” Cohen said.
A trip to the NIT in 2003 is still fresh in the memory of the talented junior class: Sean May, Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants. With center May on a roll, averaging 21.5 points per game and 11.8 rebounds in the tournament; crafty point guard Felton; all-around utility McCants and a deep bench, most think the final game will be between UNC and Illinois.
Still, Spartan fans have hope for the upset.
“In the back of their minds, I think [the Tar Heels] feel this is their game to lose,” Brooks said.
LOUISVILLE VS. ILLINOIS Saturday, April 2, 6:07 p.m.
Luckily for lower-ranked Louisville, Shel Abramson ’07 is going to be in the stands in St. Louis. Abramson may be Yale’s biggest resident Louisville fanatic, but he claims he’s not as bad as he used to be.
“My friends and I used to go to Freedom Hall, Louisville’s arena, where there’s a life-size picture of Beau Zach Smith [Louisville '97], a 6-foot-11-inch guy who looks like his face got caught in an elevator door,” Abramson said. “Anyway, we used to go pray to Beau Zach before games for about two years.”
Abramson admitted that he had revisited the ritual site over winter break to do “Beau Zach-prayers.”
Like UNC, Louisville has seen its share of rough times since the glory of titles in 1980 and 1986. With former Kentucky coach Rick Pitino at the helm, the Cardinals seem to be clicking at just the right time — and Abramson could not be happier.
“I was so happy after the Louisville [OT victory over West Virginia] Saturday, I just walked around smiling and hugging friends who watched it with me,” Abramson said. “But I was the only one trying to avoid a nervous breakdown while [West Virginia's Kevin] Pittsnogle and friends hit every shot they took.”
While close games give most fans doubt, Abramson felt overwhelming confidence after Louisville powered to the 93-85 win.
“I think we can beat anybody,” Abramson said. “I am sure [Francisco] Garcia, [Taquan] Dean and [Larry] O’Bannon will step up and that Ellis [Myles] will get it done inside against [Illinois' James] Augustine and [Robert] Powell.”
Louisville-native Josh Sowers ’05 has seen O’Bannon’s strength firsthand.
“O’Bannon knocked my high school team out of the playoffs my senior year,” Sowers said. “He simply dominated and showed more of what was to come in his college career.”
Illinois played a tight game against Arizona, winning 90-89 and providing a scare for Fighting Illini fans.
“I was terrified on Saturday night [watching the Arizona game],” Emily Field ’05 recounted. “I walked out of the room to check my e-mail and when I walked back in I almost passed out. When Arizona had the ball with 10 seconds I thought, ‘It’s over, they’re going to get a lay-up and win the game.'”
But the only time Illini fans have truly thought “it’s over” this season was a one-point loss to Ohio State March 6, ending a perfect-title bid.
“It would have been nice to go undefeated, since this is the centennial season for Illinois basketball,” Todd Olszewski GRD ’08 said. “But I can deal with a 38-1 record and a national title.”
Since early December, the Illini have been the number-one ranked team in the nation, but Field said it is Illinois’ lack of a standout player that makes them special.
“They don’t have to rely on a star to carry them,” Field said. “They’re a team and they play good team defense.”
For the Illini, the difficulty will be focusing on Saturday’s game when it seems like the entire nation wants to see the regular-season No. 1 take on No. 2 North Carolina for the national championship.
“Everyone’s been talking about what a dog conference the Big Ten is,” Field said. “I’m hoping we stick it to the ACC [on Monday].”
While a Louisville-Kentucky final would have been the dream final game for Cardinal fans like Abramson, they can walk a certain strut, knowing their in-state rivals are in the off-season now. The Cards’ motto may be “Believe,” but the Illini want to finish what they started. College basketball fans of all persuasions are paying attention to this weekend’s games, but for some Elis, the stakes are higher.