Causes have their place — just not here

DETROIT — There are varying degrees of causes. Some inspire nations. Others motivate small groups. Some change lives. Others alter ideals. Some make you remember. Others help you forget.

Michigan State has a basketball team that for weeks now has carried on its back the hopes of a state devastated by the current economic crisis.

North Carolina has a team that couldn’t care less about who the Spartans represent.

"We also have a cause," Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said. "We want to win a national championship. Period. The end.

"If you would tell me that if Michigan State wins, it’s gonna satisfy the nation’s economy, then I’d say, ‘Hell, let’s stay poor for a little while longer.’ "

It’s the only attitude he and his players should have regarding tonight’s national title game at Ford Field. It’s how winners think.

Do you believe Michigan fans want Michigan State to win, no matter the temporary happiness it might bring those struggling here most? Don’t be silly.

The level of animosity some hold for certain college programs and athletes suggests more and more people should seek psychological treatment, but it’s also a considerable part of what makes the games interesting.

And when the prize is a national title, causes become secondary. It’s only about winning.

"I’m not looking at it as anything but us playing Michigan State," North Carolina senior Tyler Hansbrough said. "All that other stuff is nothing I’m paying attention to."

Nor should he.

The Tar Heels didn’t return to the Final Four in a made-for-Hollywood manner. They weren’t defined by a group of players who gathered one night and decided to play another year of college ball with the goal of again advancing to a season’s final weekend.

They weren’t Florida of a few years ago.

What they were: a team where following its national semifinal loss to Kansas last March had just one player (Hansbrough) likely guaranteed of being picked in the first round of the NBA Draft and others (Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, Danny Green) who realized returning to school could help elevate their draft status.

The run for a national championship just sort of fell in line with all the skill.

North Carolina has been the best team this season. Not every game. Not every week.

The Tar Heels began conference play 0-2. They didn’t sit atop the Top 25 rankings from start to finish.

But with apologies to the leader of the free world, it didn’t take Barack Obama’s bracket to make anyone realize North Carolina was an obvious pick for many to win it all.

"If we play good and they play good, we’re losing," Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. "I don’t look at that as a negative. They’re the best team in the country and have been. But we have found ways to have some teams not play as good against us."

It will take some doing. Michigan State has defeated consecutive No. 1 seeds in Louisville and Connecticut, but to match Arizona of 1997 as the lone team to beat three in the same tournament will require far more than having most of 72,000-plus cheering in the direction of those wearing green.

Williams didn’t promise anyone 30 shots for returning to school. He didn’t devise plans to make any of them stars.

What he did was craft a team versatile enough to have five players average double figures in scoring, one led by the kid everyone loves to hate yet the one everyone should admire.

Hansbrough’s game doesn’t translate to a successful pro career, but his character will translate to a successful life. He really did want to play another season of college. He really did come back for all the right reasons.

Don’t be fooled by those who suggest he lost loads on money returning to school. He is what he is. Hansbrough always has known how to play, always been tough, always worked harder than most to improve.

But he was a probable late first-round NBA pick last year and could be again in June, neither explosive nor quick enough a player to make you believe otherwise.

None of that matters tonight. Why he and Lawson and the rest came back means nothing. It’s only about winning now.

"I love what Michigan State is doing, the positive feelings they’re putting out across this state," Williams said. "But I love the people of North Carolina and the positive feelings we put out across it, too.

"We’re not playing Charlie’s Donut Team. They’re pretty damn good. But there’s no question the biggest sadness I’ll have is if our team loses and the biggest exhilaration I’ve ever had will be if we win."

It’s his way of saying this:

Causes have their place.

On the court at Ford Field tonight isn’t one.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at 702-383-4618 or egraney@reviewjournal.com.

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