Spartans faced with new role: underdogs

After 3 trips to Final 4, Mich. State is 10th seed

East Regional notebook

NCAA Tournament

March 15, 2002|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON - Michigan State is in familiar territory, from another trip to the NCAA tournament to the posh digs reserved for the top team in a sub-regional. Its role, however, is not familiar.

There is no first-round cupcake this year for the 19-11 Spartans, who finished fifth in the Big Ten Conference, which it had won outright the previous three seasons.

Accustomed to easing its way into the tournament as a top seed en route to three straight Final Four appearances, Michigan State is seeded 10th and an underdog to N.C. State in today's first game at MCI Center.

As a top seed, "you have a great chance of getting out of your first-round game, and that's not the same when you're the 10 seed," Spartans coach Tom Izzo said.

It could be far worse. Not only did Michigan State have seniors (Charlie Bell and Andre Hutson) whose eligibility expired after the team's national semifinal loss to Arizona in 2001, but also two underclassmen (Jason Richardson and Zach Randolph) who decided to declare for the NBA draft.

That left the Spartans with a leadership void they hadn't faced over the previous three years, as well as a lack of go-to players. So while the team logged wins over teams such as Oklahoma and Arizona, it also went through a stretch of four straight losses at one point, and may have ended up in the National Invitation Tournament if not for a late push with five wins in six games.

"At the beginning of the season, we just expected to win games, but we didn't know how to win them," said sophomore point guard Marcus Taylor, who leads Michigan State with 16.8 points and 5.3 assists per game. "As the season went on, we learned how to read situations and how to win or lose."

As for the hotel situation, it remains the same. Michigan State is sharing space with Maryland at the Renaissance Washington, the best of the hotels, which usually goes to the top team.

"It's probably because most of [Maryland's] fans can sleep in their close, comfortable beds," Izzo said. "There's no way we're playing each other anytime soon, so I told [Gary Williams] that he owed me a little luck.

A sad homecoming

It has been a bittersweet homecoming for St. John's point guard Marcus Hatten, who will play in front of friends and family for the first time since high school tonight after having just lost his maternal grandmother.

Letha Berry died on Saturday at the age of 91. Hatten, a Mervo graduate who averages a team-leading 19.9 points for the Red Storm, returned to Baltimore over the weekend to be with his family, and he attended his grandmother's memorial service there yesterday morning.

About 15 players, coaches and support staff accompanied Hatten to the service before returning to practice at MCI Center.

"It was a great comfort for my team to come and join me in what I was going through this morning," Hatten said. "I was glad that they were there for me."

Hatten described the service as a celebration of Berry's life, one long and well-lived. For that reason, he never thought of missing the Red Storm's first-round game tonight against Wisconsin.

"When Friday comes, I'll be ready," said Hatten, who played the previous two seasons at Tallahassee (Fla.) Community College. "I'll have to put it behind me, and that's what I'm going to do. .. Even if we'd been playing out west, I would have been there."

Red Storm punishes Shaw

St. John's sophomore guard Willie Shaw did not accompany the team to Washington and will not play in any tournament games for an undisclosed violation of team rules, said coach Mike Jarvis.

Shaw, who played in 29 games this season with 14 starts, averaged 6.8 points, fourth best on the team, and 2.3 rebounds.

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