Thankfully, it's bye-bye to Badgers

April 02, 2000|By KEN ROSENTHAL

INDIANAPOLIS -- It is over. Finally, mercifully, painfully, Wisconsin's run in the 2000 NCAA men's basketball tournament is over.

We all admired the eighth-seeded Badgers, their defensive intensity, their gritty march to the Final Four, their throwback coach, Dick Bennett.

But enough is enough.

Last night, Michigan State saved CBS, the reputation of the Big Ten and college basketball as we know it, in no particular order of importance.

The Spartans were so distraught over their 19-17 halftime lead, coach Tom Izzo said they needed a "kiss-and-hug" session.

Duly comforted, Michigan State rallied behind 16 second-half points by Morris Peterson, reaching tomorrow night's final against Florida with a 53-41 victory.

Not that the network suits were fretting, but the Cartoon Network would have drawn higher ratings than a Wisconsin appearance in the NCAA title game.

It sure as heck would have been more entertaining.

The Badgers stumbled through Bracketville by way of Brickville, sputtering along with an offense so impotent they made Princeton look explosive.

The word is ugly, and Wisconsin winning the national championship would have been the equivalent of Roseanne Barr winning a beauty contest.

Worst Final Four team ever?

No right-minded hoop freak would challenge that proclamation, even if Penn was outscored 50-17 by Michigan State in the 1979 Final Four.

But now -- finally, mercifully, painfully -- the Badgers are going home.

Michigan State still looks like the best team in this tournament and deserves some kind of award for having to face Wisconsin four times this season.

Mateen Cleaves had the perfect reaction upon learning that the Badgers would be MSU's Final Four opponent:

"Oh my God."

Well, the Spartans won all four games, holding Wisconsin to an average of 46 points. For that, they should earn a bye in their first Big Ten meeting next season.

So much for the comparisons of Wisconsin to Milan High in 1954 and Villanova in 1985. No filmmaker will produce "Hoosiers II" in honor of the Badgers. And lest anyone forget, Villanova shot 22-for-28 in its upset of Georgetown in the '85 final.

The Badgers shot 15-for-43 last night, including a 2-for-11 performance by their leading scorer, Mark Vershaw.

They got out-rebounded 42-20. And they couldn't have broken down the MSU defense even if all of the Spartans agreed to stand still.

Yet Izzo was worried about his team's mental state at halftime.

MSU had started slowly in its previous three NCAA games, trailing Utah by six points, Syracuse by 14 and Iowa State by six with under five minutes left.

But this was different. This was Wisconsin.

The Spartans' guards would end up shooting a combined 3-for-16. And the team's 2-for-14 effort from three-point range would end up being the second-lowest percentage for a national semifinal game.

"I knew we were getting frustrated," Izzo said. "The players were a little down. We didn't have our normal halftime. It was more of a kiss-and-hug thing. We didn't get after them. It was an incredibly physical first half."

Indeed, the theme of the first half was, "First team to 20 wins." Neither squad reached that exalted total, a hiccup for the UNLV teams of old, bless the Runnin Rebels' impure hearts.

Wisconsin shot 6-for-21, Michigan State 6-for-24. Here's one for you Final Four trivia buffs -- the Spartans went without a basket in the final 11: 37, and still led 19-17 at the half.

Believe it or not, more points were scored in the first half of Wisconsin's last Final Four appearance -- the 1941 championship game against Washington State.

The Badgers led that one 21-17 at halftime before grinding out a pulsating 39-34 victory. They missed 47 of their 63 shots, causing FDR to turn off his radio in disgust.

Seriously, it's incredible that the Badgers made it as far as they did -- and a disturbing commentary on the state of college basketball.

Wisconsin defeated Fresno State, Arizona, LSU and Purdue to reach the Final Four. But this is a team that scored only 32 points in a first-round loss last year to Southwest Missouri State and was 13-12 at one point this season.

"I don't think you people can appreciate honestly how good a coach this guy is," Izzo said, referring to Bennett. "He had adjustments for everything we did. I've never seen a guy change his offense in the middle of the season as effectively as he did."

These, then, were the new and improved Badgers.

And they were so painful to watch, one courtside observer gazed at renowned college basketball writer Dick "Hoops" Weiss of the New York Daily News and exclaimed, "Look, even `Hoops' is yawning!"

We all admired Wisconsin, but enough is enough.

The badgering went on too long.

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