March Madness resumes Saturday night -- even though it's April. Why? Because there's just too much madness for March alone.
And it's going to get madder. Of the Final Four teams, three are No. 1 seeds.
There's Wisconsin, which won the Big Ten regular-season title and conference tournament en route to a sterling 35-3 record.
There's Duke, led by the legendary coach Mike Krzyzewski. The Blue Devils won the Coaches versus Cancer Classic, the State Farm Champions Classic and the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.
And there's the Kentucky Wildcats, who won the Cawood Ledford Classic, the Champions Classic and the CBS Sports Classic -- which begs the question, if two teams get together to play a game, is it automatically a "Classic"? Apparently so.
The Wildcats also won the SEC regular-season title and tournament -- and, well, they've won every game they've played, all 38 of them. They are trying to become the first team since Bob Knight's Indiana Hoosiers went undefeated -- in 1976 -- and right now you'd have to say they're the heavy favorites to do so.
And then, there's Michigan State. The Spartans lost to Kansas, Notre Dame, and Duke -- all great teams. They lost to Big Ten rivals Maryland and Wisconsin, twice each. OK. But they also lost to Illinois, Minnesota and lowly Nebraska, not to mention -- gasp -- Texas Southern. The Spartans have lost 11 games -- four more than the rest of the Final Four combined.
They lost the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, the Champions Classic and the Orlando Classic -- which is about as un-classic as you can get, but it's still better to win it.
The Spartans also lack star power. Three of the nation's four best players play for Wisconsin, Duke and Kentucky.
Michigan State's best player, Branden Dawson, wasn't a finalist. He wasn't a first-team all-American. Or second team. He's on the All-Big Ten squad -- second team.
You might recall the old Sesame Street song: "One of these things is not like the others. One of these things just isn't the same." And then they'd show you an apple, an orange, a banana -- and a heroin addict. And you'd have to figure out which one doesn't belong.
Well, in this Final Four, that's just as easy: It's the Spartans. But there they are. So, how did they get there? Simple: Chemistry and coaching.
Dave Pruder has served as Michigan State's equipment manager since 1989. He's seen a lot of great teams, and close ones -- but he told me this team has the best team chemistry he's ever seen: "They really care about one another. What a fun group -- and I would have said that even if we didn't get out of the first weekend. This year's run has been surreal -- so please don't wake me up!"
I first met Tom Izzo in 1997. He offered me a half hour -- and we talked for three. He's that kind of guy. But people forget, he wasn't very popular then. He was about to finish his second straight season in the bottom half of the Big Ten. Fans were openly questioning if he had what it took -- but he wasn't.
Earlier that season, he had benched two star players because they'd missed class. He didn't flinch.
"I almost want those guys to be a little embarrassed," he said. "They'll learn."
They did -- and graduated on time, like a staggering 90 percent of Izzo's players, a significantly higher rate than the student body itself.
"The program is bigger than the players," he explained. "It's bigger than the coaches. You want to build a program that will last."
Well, after 18 straight NCAA tournaments, 11 Big Ten titles -- regular season and tournament -- and seven Final Fours later, without a whiff of scandal, we can comfortably say Tom Izzo's vision has come true: He has built a program to last.
Under Izzo, the Spartans seem to be at their best when they're down. In 2010, the Spartans lost their star, Kalin Lucas, during the first weekend of NCAA tournament -- and proceeded to get to the Final Four anyway. At the time, I wrote that might be Izzo's best coaching job. But this one might be better.
Thanks partly to the tough schedule Izzo puts together, his teams tend to start slowly and then build up steam as March Madness approaches. Despite losing Gary Harris and Adreian Payne to the NBA, and Javon Bess to injury -- this year's team seems to be no exception, stumbling in the early going, then rattling off 12 wins in their last 15 games, with two of their losses coming to Wisconsin, the last in overtime.
In fact, according to Nate Silver's research group, FiveThirtyEight.com, Izzo's teams have won 30 NCAA tournament games against lower seeds -- and 15 against higher seeds, by far the most of any coach out there. That's coaching.
But you'd never know it from watching Izzo during games. His frantic expressions of disbelief and exasperation make you think he's screaming at some local ne'er do wells who just egged his house. But hey, it works, so there's no point changing now.
Sure, once again, the Spartans will be underdogs, so feel free to bet against them. They seem to like it that way.
-- John U. Bacon is the author of three New York Times bestsellers. His next book, Endzone: The Rise, Fall and Return of Michigan Football comes out this fall. He gives weekly commentary on Michigan Radio, teaches at the University of Michigan and Northwestern's Medill School of Journalism, and speaks nationwide on leadership and diversity. Learn more at JohnUBacon.com, and follow him on Twitter @johnubacon.