Wallace in sour mood as 'Dogs wait Syracuse standout starts on defensive in lead-up

Ncaa Torunament

March 30, 1996|By Ken Murray | Ken Murray,SUN STAFF

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- John Wallace wore a scowl on his face and a chip on his shoulder as he looked out over the sea of pens, pads and inquiring minds yesterday.

This is the same look the splendid 6-foot-8 Syracuse forward will give Mississippi State when the teams square off in today's national semifinal at the Meadowlands.

It was, to be certain, his game face.

A menacing figure with the Orangemen this season, Wallace was noticeably irritable and combative as he answered questions from the assembled media.

"There's no animosity," he said to one question, proceeding from there to confirm just the opposite.

"If you're not wearing an orange jersey or white jersey, or are not affiliated to Syracuse basketball right now, it doesn't matter to us. The only thing that matters is the next two games. We're not going to let anything get in the way of our focus, whether you think we're the underdogs or there should be a re-seeding. We don't care. We're here to play basketball."

If only the Orangemen (28-8) could have played yesterday.

Surprise winners of the West Regional, they go into the Final Four as 3 1/2 -point underdogs to the Bulldogs (26-7), who stormed out of the Southeast with a string of upsets themselves.

Underdogs? Three weeks ago, Syracuse was throttled by Connecticut in the Big East tournament semifinals, 85-67. Last week, that same UConn team was bounced out of the NCAA tournament by Mississippi State, 60-55.

What's more, today's first semifinal has been dubbed the "preliminary" game, or undercard to the much-anticipated rematch between Kentucky and Massachusetts.

Wallace growled at that one, too.

"We were in the preliminary game last week, supposedly, with Arizona and Kansas [in the West]," he said.

After a glorious month of March Madness in Starkville, Miss., only Syracuse stands in the Bulldogs' way of a potential all-Southeastern Conference final Monday night -- assuming favored Kentucky can handle Massachusetts this time around.

Not even State's designation in the "preliminary" game was going to launch Bulldogs coach Richard Williams on a diatribe such as the one he delivered in the Southeast Regional, though.

"I think anybody that has any idea at all about college basketball knows that it's not a JV game," Williams said. "[But] we're certainly not the marquee matchup. You have the No. 1 and 2 teams in the country playing the other game. I'm anxious to see what happens; I want to see that game, too.

"But I think both we and Syracuse deserve to be here."

They deserve it because when the NCAA tournament began, both teams were playing exquisite defense. Through four rounds each, neither the Orangemen nor the Bulldogs have allowed an opponent to shoot as much as 40 percent.

Now the test is Mississippi State's strong perimeter game against Syracuse's rugged 2-3 zone. The Bulldogs won the Southeast bracket with superb outside shooting from Darryl Wilson and Dontae' Jones. But they have not faced many zones in the SEC.

"What we've seen, they put on a great 2-3 zone," Bulldogs point guard Marcus Bullard said. "At the same time, we can't forget about our post man. We have to try to get Erick [Dampier] involved in the game early, and feed him as much as possible.

"We have to stay active. As long as we stay active with gap dribbling, and keep our big man happy, we should do good against them."

Dampier, a 6-foot-11, 265-pound junior who may opt for the NBA draft this year, is less an offensive threat, though, than he is a defensive intimidator. He has blocked 105 shots this season and 248 in his Bulldog career, both school records.

The Orangemen will counter on the inside with 6-8, 240-pound Otis Hill and, on occasion, Wallace. It would not be out of character, according to Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, for the Orangemen to play some man-to-man of their own.

"What we've tried to do is adjust our zone over the last two or three years so we could still play it with the three-point line being a factor," Boeheim said.

"We've been able to hold people around 29 percent from the three-point line this year. And there's some games, when we're not able to do that, that we have to go away from the zone. We've played probably 50 percent man-to-man this year."

When Boeheim was asked if he, like Wallace, was adopting an "us-against-the world" attitude for the Final Four, he flashed a big grin.

"No, I'm happy," said Boeheim, long noted for his dour personality. "I'm not going to say a word. I'm going to get a whole new image this year. It probably won't last long, but I'll try my best."

Syracuse (28-8) vs. Mississippi State (26-7)

Scouting report

What: NCAA semifinals

Where: Continental Airlines Arena, East Rutherford, N.J.

When: Today, 5: 42 p.m.

Line: Mississippi State by 3 1/2

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