Motor City ratchets up heat on Mich. State in Midwest

Fans talk Final Four, but Iowa State stands squarely in the road

March 25, 2000|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

AUBURN HILLS, Mich. -- Has there ever been a home-court disadvantage?

The Michigan State players awoke yesterday to a banner headline in the Detroit Free Press that read, "Indy-structible," after the Spartans' comeback win Thursday over Syracuse.

A few hours later, the Spartans were badgered by local reporters about a return trip to the Final Four and how anything less than a national championship would be a supreme disappointment.

But top-seeded Michigan State still has a game tonight against second-seeded Iowa State in the Midwest Regional final before booking its flight to the Final Four in Indianapolis.

It seems the "Izzone" has transformed into a pressure cooker.

"I think we have dealt with the pressure all year," Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. "They have been tested by games, the media and outside influences. I give [my team] credit. I do worry about it sometimes."

The Midwest Regional has become the lone bracket to follow the script, with the top two seeds advancing. But they didn't reach the regional final by their expected routes, despite the Motor City hype.

Although top-seeded Michigan State (29-7) reigned as the posh pick in the office NCAA tournament pools, the Spartans have treaded water in the first halves of their past two games and needed furious runs to lap their opponents in the end.

Meanwhile, second-seeded Iowa State (32-4) has slowly swayed the minds on the national scene by winning its three games by an average margin of 17.6 points -- best in the tournament.

"Whatever team gets the most publicity, we want to see what they're all about" said Iowa State point guard Jamaal Tinsley, who has the premier matchup with Michigan State's Mateen Cleaves. "And we want to show them what we're about."

The degree of difficulty on each of their trips characterized their news conferences, as the Spartans appeared on edge and the Cyclones acted like it was open-mike night at a comedy club.

Izzo cut off a reporter when asked about his team's recent habit of falling behind early in games. The Spartans trailed both Utah and Syracuse for most of the game before coming back in the second half. On Thursday, Michigan State faced its biggest deficit of the year at 14 points before outscoring the Orangemen, 49-18, over the final 19 minutes.

"I don't know if some people think we're playing the Iron Mountain YMCA," said Izzo, dropping in a plug for his Upper Peninsula Michigan hometown. "We are playing good people. I take it as a compliment, but I think we've gotten crazy on the other side of the coin."

Iowa State, however, enjoyed its first time in the Elite Eight spotlight.

Cyclones shooting guard Michael Nurse, who has been known to call sports talk shows, started hogging the microphone at one point and said to his four teammates, "I got this handled. You all can go back in the locker room."

Iowa State coach Larry Eustachy then said his biggest recruiting tool is "the pretty girls," and the best reason for living in Ames, Iowa, is that, "You don't have to pay before you pump gas."

But Iowa State did become serious when talking about its defense. The Cyclones hassled UCLA on Thursday into its second-worst shooting performance of the season (33.9 percent) and have allowed only two opponents this month to score more than 64 points.

"We expect this game to be physical, like a lot of teams we've played," said center Marcus Fizer, the only Cyclones starter taller than 6 feet 4. "But like I said before, we don't change our game plan for anybody. We'll identify what certain players can do and will attack them."

The one battle that Iowa State must win is at the point: Tinsley against Cleaves.

The Cyclones need Tinsley to get past Cleaves, forcing the Spartans to help and leaving either Fizer or Stevie Johnson open down low. Tinsley, a junior-college transfer, is the main reason for Iowa State's turnaround from a 15-15 team to a national title contender.

"It's going to be a tough challenge for me," Cleaves said. "He's very good with the ball. He does a great job getting in the lane and causing problems for the defense. So, it's a tough assignment, but I have to be ready to chase him around and stay in front of him for 40 minutes."

Iowa State, too, understands what to expect tonight when it steps onto a court painted Spartan green and stands before approximately 18,000 of the 21,000 fans inside the Palace wearing green.

But for the Cyclones, being the underdog is nothing new. It's expected.

"When it gets tough, we fight back," Eustachy said. "They're definitely the toughest team we'll play to date and the toughest environment. We talked to our team about opportunities, and this is just another great one."

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