Unlikely Owls find their zone in tourney run

Defense, character get stiff test in South final against Michigan State

NCAA Tournament

March 25, 2001|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- When John Chaney met the press at the Georgia Dome on Thursday, he never shed his full-length, hooded windbreaker and sunglasses. College basketball's Obi-Wan Kenobi talks like a man from a long time ago and a galaxy far, far away, and yesterday Chaney was asked if a "mystique" surrounds his zone defense, which is to Temple what the "Force" is to Star Wars.

"Many of us," Chaney said, "have a tendency to make a mystery out of B. S."

That was Chaney's acknowledgement that his program's success in March is founded in fundamentals, and that the zone's reputation is as important as its execution. Chaney calls his zone a matchup. It can shift from a 2-3 to a 1-3-1 to a box-and-one. It has totally undone Texas, Florida and Penn State, and it has Temple one win from becoming the first No. 11 seed to grace the Final Four in 15 years.

Chaney knows that Michigan State will not be as easy to beat when the Owls and the top-seeded Spartans meet in the South Regional final at 2:40 p.m. today.

Chaney, 69, wants to get to his first Final Four and become the oldest man to win an NCAA title. Michigan State longs to be the first repeat champion since Duke in 1992, and is favored to reach its third straight Final Four.

"I wish we weren't playing him," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "When I see guys like John Chaney and [Purdue's] Gene Keady, who have never been there, it's almost like I don't deserve to get to two Final Fours. Those guys embody everything that is right in college athletics."

Chaney attended Bethune-Cookman, a historically black college in Florida, then returned to his beloved Philadelphia and earned his stripes as a high school and Division II coach. Over 19 seasons at Temple, without the benefit of a glamorous campus or a big budget, he has built one of the nation's most respected programs. This is Chaney's second regional final in three seasons, fifth in the past 14, and easily his most unlikely.

The Owls' football team recently lost its affiliation with the Big East Conference because it didn't draw well. Chaney himself trimmed some ballast earlier this season, as he responded to a seven-game losing streak by dumping two players. On March 9, in the Atlantic 10 tournament semifinals, Temple was 2.9 seconds from a loss to George Washington that probably would have kept it out of the NCAAs.

"When you don't think it should happen, it happens," Chaney said. "I just wanted to get into the tournament and see if we could be lightning in a bottle. It's most surprising that we have been this successful with only seven usable players. It's one of the most unusual things that has ever happened in my life.

"Remember Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid? They were on the run, looking up at the guys trying to shoot them, and one of them said, `Who are those guys?' There's no way I could see us being here three or four months ago."

Yesterday's news conference included a typical Chaney ramble on a variety of topics, from weighty ones like socioeconomics and the Jewish man who taught him the game to frivolous ones like going to a snooty French restaurant with his friend, actor and comedian Bill Cosby. As Michigan State's players were dismissed, Izzo said, "Good job, guys." Chaney playfully batted back nearly everything his players said.

David Hawkins suggested that the game could come down to "will," and Chaney reminded his freshman that no one has ever questioned the resolve of an Izzo team.

"They're champions. What do you mean `will'?" Chaney said. "They're going to rip you up, David."

Michigan State leads the nation in rebounding margin, and Lynn Greer, the junior guard who has driven Temple this far, said: "If we don't rebound, we're not going to win the game."

"When have we ever rebounded the ball?" Chaney countered.

After Quincy Wadley talked of not being satisfied with "just getting to the Final Four," Chaney picked up speed. "Can you come up with some new cliches?" he said. "They're going to be all over your butt."

Chaney's players tolerate the 5:30 a.m. practices and midnight bed-check phone calls in order to become better players and students. The banter is all an act, designed to place Michigan State on a pedestal and keep his players off one, even if they have hatched the surprise of the NCAA tournament.

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