Spartans, Longhorns gear up for expected `old-fashioned fistfight'

Each coach emphasizes intense, physical style

South Regional

NCAA Tournament

March 30, 2003|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

SAN ANTONIO - Before it beat Maryland, Michigan State heard words of inspiration from Magic Johnson, its most illustrious basketball alum. The charismatic star of the 1979 NCAA tournament symbolized Spartan hoops, until Tom Izzo became head coach in 1995 and made the program synonymous with ferocity.

No one plays harder than Michigan State.

Unless it's Texas.

The two meet in today's South Region final at the Alamodome. The Spartans, champions in 2000, are seeking their fourth Final Four in five seasons. The Longhorns haven't reached the NCAA tournament semifinals in 56 years, but they are clawing at the door of college basketball's elite because coach Rick Barnes turned a program once viewed as soft into a brawler.

Both spice up practices with a rebounding drill. Five players get in the lane, five more set up on the three-point arc. A ball is tossed at the backboard, bodies bang and there is no whistle to signal the end of what Izzo calls the "War Drill," Barnes "Circle the Wagons."

"This should be an old-fashioned fistfight," Izzo said.

Barnes expected to be working on the last weekend in March, with Texas ranked No. 3 in the preseason. His rotation has just one senior. The Longhorns became dangerous when the direction of sophomore point guard T.J. Ford was applied to a junior class nucleus of center James Thomas, forward Brian Boddicker and wings Royal Ivey and Brandon Mouton.

Michigan State began with a No. 9 ranking but was undone by a slew of injuries that prohibited the practice environment Izzo demands. Finally healthy, the Spartans are in their fourth regional final since 1999. No one else has been there more than twice in that time, and the Spartans are back despite the early departures to the NBA of such talents as Jason Richardson and Zach Randolph.

They have one starter averaging in double figures, but find a new hero every night. Friday it was 6-foot-11 freshman Paul Davis, who came off the bench and scored 13 points against Maryland, including the Spartans' last six. Davis did not exactly sprout from nowhere, though, as he was the state's latest Mr. Basketball to go to Michigan State.

In early February, Davis was yanked from a game at Michigan and reamed by Izzo for a nonchalant play. On Friday, the coach was happy to beat Maryland but disappointed at the way Michigan State squandered a 14-point lead and let the Terps get back in the game. In discussing his team's inability to protect the ball against Maryland's pressure, Izzo repeatedly used the word "casual."

Barnes and Izzo have preached physical basketball, but in different circles. Izzo found happiness and his dream job in his home state, Barnes kept climbing in search of the right fit and funding.

Izzo is in his 20th season as a member of the Spartans' staff. There was a brief break in that loyalty, as he spent the 1986-87 season as the top assistant at Tulsa. That was the season Barnes helped Gary Williams at Ohio State, and after that taste of the Big Ten, he coached George Mason in the Colonial Athletic Association, Providence in the Big East and Clemson in the Atlantic Coast Conference before heading to Austin in 1998.

The Longhorns reached the NCAA semifinals in 1943 and '47, but technically, they have never been to a Final Four, as that format wasn't adopted until 1951. The program had stalled under Tom Penders, whose teams played fast and loose, and fizzled in March. When Barnes gave his new team an offseason conditioning routine, the veterans laughed. Now he has one of the sharpest, fittest outfits in the land.

"I have one game tape that I show my team every year," Barnes said, referring to a regional final that occurred when his juniors were seniors in high school. "That's Michigan State-Iowa State three years ago. I show it for one reason, to impress upon the kids the kind of effort and intensity you have to show if you want to be the national champion. The intensity level in that game was incredible."

Barnes expects more of the same today.

South final

No. 1 Texas (25-6) vs. No. 7 Mich. State (22-12)

Site: Alamodome, San Antonio

Time: 5:05 p.m.

Conference records: The Longhorns went 13-3 and finished second to Kansas in the Big 12. They lost their conference tournament opener to Texas Tech, 92-81. Sent to Birmingham, Ala., they handled 16th seed UNC Asheville, 82-61, in the first round and broke free in the second half from 9th-seeded Purdue for a 77-67 second-round win. Texas beat fifth-seeded Connecticut, 82-78, on Friday. Michigan State closed strong in the Big Ten, where it finished 10-6, but lost to Ohio State, 55-54, in the conference tournament semifinals. The Spartans handled 10th-seeded Colorado, 79-64, and second-seeded Florida, 68-46, in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, then survived a Maryland comeback to prevail in the Sweet 16, 60-58.

Coaches: Rick Barnes is 115-49 in five seasons at Texas and 317-183 in 16 seasons overall. Tom Izzo is 189-77 in eight seasons at Michigan State.

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