A Spartan chance

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The center who escaped war-ravaged Sarajevo, the forward who endured his father's imprisonment, the coaches chasing their second national championship.

The point guard's toe, the freshman's knees, the icon's farewell.

The favorite's dominance, the underdog's cause.

College basketball's national-title contest tonight offers more compelling characters than an Elmore Leonard novel.

Question is, can North Carolina and Michigan State deliver a compelling game?

Heaven knows this NCAA tournament could use it.

Think about it. Much as we anticipate our annual bracket busting, 2009 has produced few indelible moments.

The simultaneous, first-round overtimes showcasing Siena-Ohio State and Wisconsin-Florida State kept folks up past midnight. The East Regional final between Villanova and Pittsburgh merited two hours of rapt attention and left those of us at Pearl's Oyster House in Memphis hoarse from the cheering — for both teams.

Otherwise, the last three weeks have been rather tepid.

If the Tar Heels (33-4) and Spartans (31-6) play to form tonight, that's unlikely to change.

Not because North Carolina housed Michigan State 98-63 at this very venue, Ford Field, on Dec. 4. That knockout, the Spartans' worst in 13 years, was an aberration.

Center Goran Suton, who as a 6-year-old fled Bosnia with his family, missed that game with a knee injury. Freshman forward Delvon Roe played — he was scoreless in 20 minutes — but still was recovering from surgery on both knees.

Plus, the Spartans were fatigued from four games in seven days, the first three at a tournament in Florida.

But as Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said Sunday: "If we had everybody perfect, the way they played that night, instead of winning by 35 they could have beat us by 20. If we play good and they play good, we're losing. …

"They are the best team in the country, and have been that. … I don't feel bad about saying that. I don't feel like I'm demeaning my team. I'm realistic. I'm semi-intelligent. I've watched enough film."

But if athletes were automatons and the best teams always won, who would watch? Besides, Michigan State isn't Saginaw State, and this isn't Hickory High against South Bend Central in "Hoosiers."

The Spartans won the Big Ten regular season and were seeded second in the Midwest Regional. They defeated No. 1 seeds Louisville and Connecticut in their most recent outings, and a victory tonight would make them the first team in history to beat three No. 1s in succession.

Michigan State point guard Kalin Lucas is the Big Ten's player of the year, running mate Travis Walton the conference's defender of the year.

"You don't get this far on grit," Izzo said. "There are some talented guys here in their own right. I think they're trying to build their own legends."

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