Michigan St. faces more badgering

Wisconsin undeterred, although 0-3 against Spartans this season

April 01, 2000|By Jamison Hensley | Jamison Hensley,SUN STAFF

INDIANAPOLIS -- It's a long way from Hollywood, but a short road for the Michigan State basketball team to end a year's worth of frustration.

While the Spartans have remained focused on their unresolved goal since losing to Duke in last year's Final Four, Wisconsin has drawn on different motivation heading into today's NCAA tournament semifinal game at RCA Dome.

The Badgers practiced two days ago at Hinkle Fieldhouse, the site that served as the backdrop for the movie "Hoosiers," which told the story of a 1950s small-town high school team overcoming the odds to win the Indiana state title. Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett has watched the movie 18 times and could be accused of stealing that team's methodical style.

But Bennett has seen another script as well, the one in which Wisconsin has lost to Big Ten rival Michigan State three times in the past two months. In reality, the Spartans are considered the contender and the Badgers are still pretenders.

"I'd be lying if I said there weren't any seeds of doubt," Bennett said. "When a team beats you three times, then you perhaps say that's a superior team."

The Spartans (30-7), the tournament's lone surviving top seed, may not bring the most captivating story line, but they do bring a dose of sanity to this upset-filled NCAA tournament.

They have the playmaker in Mateen Cleaves. They have the finisher in Morris Peterson.

They beat teams up for rebounds. They beat teams down the floor for layups.

The Big Ten champions have grit, flash and, more importantly, some unfinished business.

"I think last year, we were the little kid in the candy store, just wanting to buy some candy," Peterson said. "This year, we've come to buy some candy."

The Badgers (22-13), though, have a reputation of stealing what isn't supposed to be theirs. The eighth seed out of the West is 8-4 against ranked teams not wearing Spartan green and has forced 178 turnovers while allowing 230 baskets in those games.

At Wisconsin, it's a system based on low scoring and high intensity.

If the Badgers don't wear down their opponent on defense, they'll lull them to sleep on offense. With no one able to break down teams off the dribble, Wisconsin runs down the shot clock and makes defenders run through a series of screens.

How strange is this approach? Mark Vershaw, a 6-foot-9 forward, leads the team in scoring (11.9), assists (3.3) and three-point shooting (53.8 percent). And the defensive enforcer is Mike Kelley, a 6-3, 185-pound point guard.

It's not an easy physical style to adapt against, and the Badgers capitalized on that by upsetting top-seeded Arizona and No. 4 Louisiana State in the West Regional. But the Spartans not only understand Wisconsin's philosophy, they know how to beat it.

"I kind of look forward to playing Wisconsin," Michigan State center Andre Hutson said. "You know the way they play that you're going to have to play your best to win."

Still, does winning three times by an average of 10.3 points give Michigan State any edge?

"None," Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. "In all honesty, I think it makes it more difficult."

Some of his players, however, don't share in the party line.

"I think it has to give us a little extra confidence," said forward A. J. Granger. "You can't overlook that."

Or overlook the Spartans' defense, which has taken a back seat to the Badgers'.

But Wisconsin is all too familiar with how Michigan State guards. The Badgers have only converted 51 of 149 shots (34.2 percent) against Michigan State and have averaged just 48 points.

The Spartans usually give one chance each possession by sending four players to the boards to limit offensive rebounds. And once teams catch the ball, it's only a short time before a quick defender cuts off any opportunity.

"You have to do everything right to get that look at the basket, and then they cut into it," Bennett said. "They're in your face so quickly that they affect your percentage."

Yet Bennett has a clear view of his chances today.

Michigan State is the only team to beat Wisconsin since Feb. 2. The Spartans routed the Badgers by 17 points on Feb. 12 in Madison, Wis., and led them by 13 at halftime three weeks ago.

That's the reality for Wisconsin, which isn't exactly happy to see how its story line ends.

"Well, candidly, I'd rather be playing someone else," Bennett said. "Without reservation, I can say that. They are as complete as I can imagine a team can be."

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