Michigan State, Arizona: Simplifications don't hold

Workhorse Spartans? Slick Wildcats? Neither team likes its image

Ncaa Tournament

The Final Four

March 31, 2001|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

MINNEAPOLIS - Michigan State and Arizona, who will meet at 5:42 tonight in the first semifinal of the Final Four, are as different as two teams can get. They are also quite similar.

Michigan State (28-4) rebounds extremely well - well enough to grab an average of 15 more than its opponents. Those same opponents have hit fewer than 40 percent of their field-goal attempts against the Spartans.

A team that pays such close attention to defense must not be very "athletic," or so it's said.

On the other hand, the book on Arizona (27-7) states that Lute Olson has a team whose athleticism is without parallel. If that's true, the Wildcats must not defend or rebound well.

Not necessarily so. "Don't count out their defense," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said of a team that has held opponents below 45 percent shooting in 14 of its past 16 games. "I've seen them hold some teams down, too, and they can get after you defensively very well."

Just the same, Olson isn't comfortable with the idea that Michigan State takes a hard-hat approach to the game to compensate for a lack of athleticism.

To the contrary, he said athleticism is a reason the Spartans have occasionally gotten more rebounds than an opponent has scored points.

Likening Michigan State to Illinois - Arizona's last opponent and another Big Ten team that accumulated rebounds through physical play - is inappropriate, he said.

"They commit four to the boards and they're quick jumpers," Olson said, explaining why it is so difficult to keep Michigan State off the boards. "I'm not sure that anyone is necessarily more physical than Illinois, but I think Michigan State's jumpers are quicker."

The Spartans are the less sexy of the two teams, and the Wildcats tend to be seen as flighty. Nonetheless, Michigan State has one of the tournament's most exciting players in sophomore Jason Richardson, and it's difficult to be more consistent than Arizona has been while winning 17 of its past 19 games.

So each team is wary of accepting preconceptions about its opponent. Arizona's Richard Jefferson said Michigan State is "similar to us in the sense that they have quite a few players who, on any given night can go out there, really play well and affect the game."

Spartans forward Andre Hutson praised Arizona, saying, "They have the best-talented group of guys in the country."

But Arizona was nearly everyone's No. 1 choice when this season began. So anything short of domination tended to be a disappointment.

But when talk begins about the possibility of going undefeated, disappointment is virtually guaranteed. The Wildcats, after a strong showing at the Maui Invitational, began playing unevenly and lost five of their first 13 games.

Jefferson was suspended for a brief time early in the season, as was Loren Woods. Then Olson needed two weeks to regroup after his wife, Bobbi, died of ovarian cancer on New Year's Day.

"I think what it says about the players is that they have a mental toughness that, despite all of the distractions, they've done a really great job of being focused on what's been needed," Olson said.

By contrast, the Spartans seem to have pretty much sailed through the season. The closest thing to a slump was when they lost two of four games between Jan. 27 and Feb. 6. Their other two losses were separated by two months.

But Michigan State had to replace two first-round NBA draft picks - Mateen Cleaves and Morris Peterson - plus key player A. J. Granger. With those three gone, Izzo had to find out how and where to insert a couple of high-school All-Americans, Marcus Taylor and Zach Randolph.

Taylor missed three games with a broken ring finger at one point, and Hutson had a bout with pneumonia that kept him out for a game.

"There's been a lot," Michigan State guard Charlie Bell said. "[But] once somebody gets hurt, everybody just steps up their game."

Not surprisingly, the Spartans don't have the same image of themselves that most people have of them. They did practice in shoulder pads once, but that was last year. They don't enjoy their smash-mouth image.

"We don't look at ourselves as a physical and beat-you-up team," Hutson said. "If we're playing bigger guys, we want to be quicker. If we're playing smarter guys, we want to be stronger."

Just as Michigan State is more than brute strength, the Wildcats are more than speed and the shot-blocking of center Loren Woods. The team did play Illinois, after all, and - 56 foul shots later - they lived to tell about it.

Ask Arizona's players and they'll tell you that they can bang if they have to.

"We're physical, too," said Arizona power forward Michael Wright. "People think the West Coast is soft. But we've played against physical teams, too."

NOTE: Arizona's players were a little taken aback by a billboard they saw in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area on the way to their hotel.

It said, "Four U, Bobbi," a reference to Olson's late wife. It was a shock for the players, who had hoped to gain some respite from the issue.

"When we first saw it, we thought, `Why here?' " said Arizona guard Gilbert Arenas, who didn't know that Lute and Bobbi were married in Minneapolis.

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