SPOKANE, Wash. — Cinderella built March Madness.
Sure, men’s basketball fans love when the best teams square off in the NCAA Tournament.
But it’s the upsets — especially in the tourney’s first two rounds — that really captivate the country.
So now it’s Delaware’s turn to see if it can cram its foot into one of those glass slippers.
To be sure, the odds will be extremely long when the 13th-seeded Blue Hens (25-9) take on No. 4 Michigan State (26-8) in the NCAA tourney today at 4:40 p.m. EST in Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena. The contest is being televised nationally on TNT.
No less than President Obama, not to mention all five ESPN college hoop analysts, have picked the Spartans to not only win today’s game but to capture the program’s third national championship.
Like every other underdog before them, however, the Hens are going in believing they have a legitimate shot at the upset. It’s the program’s first appearance in the NCAAs since 1999.
“We knew we were going to face a good team in Michigan State,” said senior guard Davon Usher. “The tournament is built for situations like this. You never know what can happen. That’s why every year there’s always an upset and things don’t go the way people plan them to go.
“You never know. We just have to be on our good game that night and see what happens.”
“We don’t have to be the better team all year,” said junior guard Jarvis Threatt. “We just have to be able to bring it for one game. And it’s on a neutral floor and we’re confident. It’s the NCAA tournament, anything can happen.
“We’re a confident group, we’re experienced, and we don’t really back down from whoever it is that we’re playing.”
Delaware has played great teams before in its four-game NCAA tourney history. The Cincinatti squad that dumped the Hens in 1992 ended up in the Final Four.
However, this Michigan State team might be as talented as any that Delaware has played — and the Hens seem to be catching the Spartans at the wrong time.
Ranked 11th nationally now, Michigan State was No. 1 in the country for three straight weeks after opening the season with seven wins in a row. After dealing with injuries and dropping back into the back, the Spartans emerged again last weekend when they won the Big 10 tournament.
Healthy again, the Spartans are suddenly a leading candidate again to win it all.
“There are people around here that pronounced us dead a week ago,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo. “All of a sudden we went from the ugly duckling to the prom queen.”
The Hens go into the matchup as 14-point underdogs. And why not?
Delaware is 0-4 in the NCAAs, 0-18 against current Big 10 schools and 0-29 against Top 25 squads. And fourth-seeded teams are a commanding 91-25 against No. 13’s since the tournament expanded in 1985.
Still, that means there have been 25 upsets.
If Delaware has a puncher’s chance in Spokane it is because of the Hens’ ability to score. All five of their starters average in double figures, led by Devon Saddler and Usher at over 19 points per game.
When Delaware is at its best, it will push the ball up and down the floor and get shots off quickly.
“They can shoot threes,” said Izzo, whose program is making its 17th straight appearance in the NCAAs. “They have a post presence. They got to the foul line a ton. That can change the game.”
From the Hens’ point of view, their biggest headache is Michigan State’s ability to rebound. Since it starts four guards, Delaware has had trouble with rebounding all season anyway.
Carl Baptiste, the Hens’ 6-foot-9, 260-pound center, knows he’s going to need a lot of help on the boards.
“We’re going to need all five on the glass,” Baptiste said on Wednesday. “That’s definitely going to be my main focus tomorrow. I’m going to find Adreian Payne every play and make sure I stop him from getting to the glass, because he and (Branden) Dawson are monsters when it comes to that.”
There are many people who believe that Michigan State should have been a higher seed in the tournament.
If that’s true, Delaware coach Monte’ Ross said it’s his team that has to pay the price.
The Hens have proven they can compete against higher-level programs at times. There’s probably other high seeds in the tournament they’d have a better chance against.
But that won’t stop Delaware from trying to shock the college basketball world today.
“Who it really hurts is a 13-seeded Delaware team who I think is pretty good,” Ross said about the seeding. “But we have to play a team like Michigan State, who is much closer to a one. Instead of us having the opportunity to do whatever, we’re going up against one of the best teams in the country.
“But, you know what? When you’re in this type of situation, when you’re in a tournament situation like this, it’s one game. It’s one game. ... If we had to play Michigan State in a seven-game series, it would be very, very difficult for us to win. But in a one-game situation, I think that’s the beauty of March Madness.”