West is old school test

Wisconsin vs. Purdue a throwback, with more bruises than dunks

March 25, 2000|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- Pretty, it won't be.

Those interested in high-flying dunks and other dazzling displays of basketball artistry should not tune into today's NCAA tournament West Regional final between sixth-seeded Purdue and eighth-seeded Wisconsin.

It seems appropriate for these Big Ten rivals to be playing in a throwback arena called The Pit, with the winner advancing to next week's Final Four at the RCA Dome in Indianapolis.

These are, for the most part, a couple of old school teams coached by dinosaurs named Gene Keady and Dick Bennett.

"When we play them, there are a lot of bumps and bruises. It's almost like a football type of game," Wisconsin guard Jon Bryant said yesterday. "A lot of people don't appreciate that, but if you like fundamental basketball, you'd like the way we play."

Their performances here in Thursday night's semifinals were strictly for purists, and probably made it difficult for the producers back at ESPN to find highlights. As Gonzaga center Axel Dench said after his team lost to Purdue, "You don't see a lot of offensive rebounds on `SportsCenter.' "

If offensive rebounding was the difference in its 75-66 victory over the 10th-seeded Bulldogs -- the Boilermakers had 20 rebounds and at least a dozen second-chance baskets or subsequent free throws -- Purdue's defense wasn't too shabby, either. Gonzaga made only five of 20 three-pointers.

While Wisconsin wasn't dominant on the boards, and in fact was out-rebounded by 10 in its 61-48 victory over fourth-seeded LSU, its defense was as suffocating as any the Tigers had seen in a 28-6 season. The Badgers held LSU to 17-of-47 shooting and star forward Stromile Swift to three baskets.

"They played hard and I give their defense a lot of credit," said LSU center Jabari Smith. "They took away a lot of things we like to do. We didn't execute and we didn't play the way we usually play."

The victories set up a meeting of teams with the most combined losses in a regional final since seeding began in 1979. It also set up the fourth meeting this season between the schools.

Purdue won at home in West Lafayette, while Wisconsin won both in Madison and at the Big Ten tournament in Chicago earlier this month.

A win today would give Purdue (24-9) its first trip to the Final Four since a Rick Mount-led team lost to UCLA in the 1969 final, and it would provide the Boilermakers with a virtual home-court advantage next week. But Keady, 63, doesn't believe it would necessarily validate his 24-year college coaching career.

"That Final Four thing -- everyone thinks it would fill my resume," Keady said after advancing to his first regional final in six years, only the second time he has taken a team that far in 17 NCAA tournament appearances. "I didn't know I was trying to fill my resume. I'd rather make a 20-foot putt against my buddies."

A victory for Wisconsin (21-13) would put the Badgers into the Final Four for the first time since winning a then eight-team championship in 1941. Not bad for a team that was struggling at 13-12 earlier this season, or for a 56-year-old coach who heard whispers that his system was not in step with the times.

"The ultimate is for a team to make the tournament and the ultimate of the ultimate is the Final Four and a chance to win a national championship," said Bennett, who has been at Wisconsin for five years after 19 split between two smaller state schools, in Green Bay and Stevens Point. "When you're relatively close, it gives you shivers."

The only shivers felt on the floor today will likely be delivered by some forearms. In what is widely regarded as the most physical conference in college basketball, Purdue and Wisconsin are considered along with Michigan State as the most bruising teams.

During one of the meetings this season, guards Carson Cunningham and Mike Kelley literally bumped heads and needed stitches to close their respective gashes. Kelley has made a reputation as one of the Big Ten's top defensive players for the job he has done on Purdue's Jaraan Cornell. Kelley says Cornell threatened to break his jaw last season, a claim Cornell has denied.

Asked about what it's like to play the Badgers, Cunningham smiled devilishly.

"You get your adrenalin flowing," he said. "When you're playing, it's not a real brutal experience. It's physical, but it's fun. We like contact. We're just ready to get it on."

Two old-school teams, two dinosaur coaches, at a throwback arena called The Pit. Pretty, it won't be.

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