Sedrick Irvin wore a green shirt, a straw hat and a look of
irrepressible pride in his alma mater last Saturday as he stood
a dozen rows up from the floor at The Palace of Auburn Hills.
Irvin is now a running back for the Detroit Lions, but two years
ago he starred in the backfield for Michigan State, whose
basketball team had moments earlier defeated Iowa State 75-64
in the Midwest Regional final to earn a trip to the Final Four.
Mateen Cleaves, a former all-state high school quarterback who
plays much the same position on the court for the Spartans, had
no trouble finding him. He whipped the game ball on a line
toward a thicket of raucous fans and into Irvin's hands. "Just
wanted to show," Cleaves said later, "that I've still got a good
The wait for a college football playoff is over. No need to talk
ourselves blue on the chat shows or lobby the abominable no-men
in those hideous blazers. Michigan State, Wisconsin, North
Carolina and Florida will gather in the RCA Dome in Indianapolis
this weekend with pads on.
The first two, Big Ten neighbors set to face each other in one
semifinal, are bruising, throwback teams with coaches who cite
gridiron influences. "The football game we played tonight was
incredible," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after the
regional final. "And the next football game we're going to play
might as well be the Packers and Bears--it's going to be that
tough." Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett calls the Badgers who
helped a teammate, Jon Bryant, spring free for five
three-pointers in a 64-60 defeat of Purdue in the West Regional
final his "blockers." "I grew up around Green Bay," Bennett
explains. "I had to use football terms to get anybody to listen
If not for a 6'7", 270-pound defensive end who walked on from
the football field, the most ponderous North Carolina team in
memory might not have made the NIT, much less a run through the
NCAAs, reaching the Final Four with a 59-55 defeat of Tulsa in
the South Regional final. And while Florida used something
recognizable as basketball to defeat Oklahoma State 77-65 in the
East, the Gators' style is perhaps best described in football
terms: They emphasize special teams (the second five averages
double-figure minutes) and blitzing defenses (Billy Donovan
coaches the same kind of 94-foot pressure he learned as a player
and assistant under Rick Pitino).
Indeed, with all the buzz cuts and mouth guards--as well as the
13 losses that underdogs North Carolina and Wisconsin each bring
with them, the most ever for a team in a Final
Four--Indianapolis will feature a lot more attitude than
pulchritude. In this Final Four of broad shoulders, you can find
a clue to each team in that body part. The Spartans literally
pad their shoulders. Izzo had them practice in football gear
this season, just the kind of exercise that helps a team lead
the nation in rebounding margin (11.7 per game). The Badgers
square their shoulders. They mixed a peerless brand of position
defense with timely three-point shooting to take out tournament
opponents Fresno State, Arizona, LSU and Purdue. The Tar Heels
shrug their shoulders, putting behind them an exasperating
season of injuries and defeats, which last week led center
Brendan Haywood to pointedly tell any fan hoping to hop back on
the bandwagon to "go root for [North Carolina] State." And the
Gators drape arms around one another's shoulders, sharing duties
so equitably that this season seven players have taken a turn as
the team's top scorer.
An Iowa State-Michigan State game should have awaited us in
Indy, for in playing the best game of the tournament the
Cyclones and Spartans demonstrated that they were the best teams
in the tournament. Michigan State had to overcome a second-half
deficit for the third straight game to beat the Cyclones, but
the Spartans did so emphatically, with a 23-5 closing rush that
included Morris Peterson's alley-oop dunk off a set play, one of
the things to watch for whenever Michigan State has the ball
(box, below). Cleaves's lob was every bit as perfect as the pass
he would later zip to Irvin--and as well-timed as the profane
tirade he launched into at halftime of the regional semifinal
against Syracuse, with the Spartans trailing by 10. "Somebody
said he had one of 'em by the throat," says Izzo, who was still
making his way to the locker room while his point guard
delivered the philippic. "If I'd done that, I'd be castrated."
Izzo grew up with San Francisco 49ers coach Steve Mariucci in
Iron Mountain, on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, before enrolling
at Northern Michigan, where the two roomed together. As a
basketball graduate assistant, Izzo charted defensive tendencies
for the Wildcats' football team for fun. (Today his staff keeps
track of such film-room particulars as deflections and breaks
down offensive boards into opportunities, attempts and
successful rebounds.) He'll script the first four plays of every
game, a sort of opening series. He even prefers that his players
do their lifting in the football weight room, not in the
basketball facility, because there's "just a different mentality
there," he says. "A lot of basketball guys are prima donnas.
They've been brought up by high school coaches who believe
lifting is going to affect your shot."
As the Spartans locked up their second straight trip to the
Final Four, their fans chanted, "We want cheese!" in reference
to a Badgers team that Michigan State has already beaten three
times this season. Problem is, Wisconsin's defense is less
cheddar than Limburger, with an essence that never entirely goes
away. Judging by the Badgers' offense (they average 60.5 points
a game on 42.9% shooting), the school fight song should be Off
Wisconsin. But in light of their defense (opponents average 55.8
points and shoot 39.8%), their nickname could be the Badgerers.
"If you think we're ugly in games, you should see our
practices," says Mark Vershaw, Wisconsin's tuba-playing center.
It's hard to imagine anything uglier than LSU's performance
against the Badgers in the West Regional semifinal. The Tigers
finished the first half with 14 points and as many turnovers, as
Wisconsin guard Mike Kelley, the Big Ten's defensive player of
the year in 1998-99, helped put a cordon around the lane. (You
can almost field an All-America team with the players the
Badgers shut down on the way to Indy: Fresno State's Courtney
Alexander, Arizona's Jason Gardner, LSU's Stromile Swift and
Purdue's Jaraan Cornell.) In the meantime Bryant, a Division II
transfer who had to walk on and redshirt before earning a
scholarship, continued his clinical shooting, which has allowed
him to more than double his scoring average in the NCAAs, from
7.0 points in the regular season to 16.8 in the tournament. "We
might not be the most pleasant team to watch," says Bryant, "but
if you know a lot about basketball and are a real fan, you can
appreciate the way we play."
The man responsible for all this hoops homeliness is the
56-year-old Bennett, who grew up hanging around Packers
practices. "From Vince Lombardi I learned to do a few things but
do them well," he says. Bennett took a high school basketball
job after attending tiny Ripon (Wis.) College, and so began what
he calls "my sponge years." He attended clinics, devoured books
and chewed over strategy for hours with a buddy who coached at a
rival high school, even swapping scouting reports before they'd
play each other, just to heighten the challenge. Bennett's own
coach at Clintonville (Wis.) High, Carl Bruggink, 62, recently
finished his 40th season there, and Bennett still calls him for
Football players figured in North Carolina's fitful season.
Ronald Curry, the quarterback who was to understudy for senior
point guard Ed Cota, ruptured his right Achilles tendon in
October and didn't play a minute of basketball. But Cota wound
up recruiting a replacement of sorts from summer pickup games in
Chapel Hill--defensive end Julius Peppers, who led the Tar Heels
in sacks last fall. Cota persuaded coach Bill Guthridge to give
Peppers a look, and after a single practice in late November,
Guthridge found a uniform for the buff freshman, whose father
named him after Dr. J. The forward the Tar Heels call "Pep" is
now the first player off the bench, able to fill in at any
frontcourt position. "A godsend," Guthridge calls Peppers. "We
definitely would not be here without him."
In practice, as the only player capable of guarding the 7-foot,
264-pound Haywood, Peppers gets a lot of credit for the North
Carolina center's improvement. In the Tar Heels' defeat of
top-seeded Stanford in Round 2, Peppers dogged Cardinal shooter
Ryan Mendez on the perimeter, swim-stroking past screeners as if
they were offensive linemen. When Haywood fouled out with more
than eight minutes to go in the South Regional semifinal against
Tennessee, Peppers stepped in to rebound, defend and score six
unexpected points. In the final North Carolina's inside strength
so preoccupied the Tulsa defense that Joseph Forte, the Tar
Heels' freshman guard, ended up scoring 28 points.
The Heels' top scorer may be Forte, but their coach is mezzo
piano. Dean Smith's longtime assistant, now in his third season
on his own, is known within the Carolina family as both Coach
Gut and the Reverend, the latter in reference to a long-ago
Christmas Eve when the team was traveling through Europe and
Guthridge delivered a Scripture reading about the Nativity in a
He claims not to have heard fans calling for his firing this
season and says he doesn't listen to talk shows, but if he takes
the local paper he couldn't have missed the headline in the
Durham Herald-Sun after the Tar Heels' ACC tournament
quarterfinal loss to Wake Forest, the one that read GUT-TER
BALL. Even after guiding the Tar Heels to their second Final
Four in three seasons, Guthridge will forever be a few losses
away from another vituperative headline, for that's part of
coaching at Chapel Hill.
After the nadir of the ACC tournament loss barely three weeks
ago, the Reverend suddenly loosened his collar. He scheduled
extra, fiercer practices. Before North Carolina left campus for
the first round in Birmingham, he invited anyone who didn't
believe the Tar Heels could win two games to stay home. When
Forte short-armed a few shots against Stanford, Guthridge
bellowed, "If you're not going to shoot with confidence, don't
shoot at all!" After Carolina beat the Cardinal, there was Coach
Gut in the locker room, in tears.
None of the Final Four participants chose to win one for the
Gipper, but at the request of Florida coach Billy Donovan, every
Gator chose someone to whom he would dedicate the East Regional
final against Oklahoma State, then inscribed that person's name
on tape wrapped around his socks. "You're playing for someone
other than yourself," Donovan explained. "It makes you reach
down a little bit deeper."
Donovan could be Billy Sunday, with his lacquered coif and
motivational gimmickry. During a scrimmage before Florida's
first-round game with Butler, he ordered any player who
committed a turnover or took a bad shot to assume a defensive
stance for 35 seconds, in preparation for the Bulldogs'
deliberate half-court offense. Now in his fourth season in
Gainesville, he has no time line for winning a title. To
Donovan, "four-year plans" are for socialist finance ministers;
he prefers to quote a football coach, Bill Parcells, who always
said, "I have no plan but to win every game that I coach."
To that end Donovan has recruited like a revivalist, spreading
the Gators' run-and-press gospel to every corner of the country.
He went to Mitchell, S.Dak., to find forward Mike Miller; to St.
Albans, W.Va., to find guard Brett Nelson; to Concord, N.H., to
find forward Matt Bonner. To land Miller, he received an assist
from Florida football coach Steve Spurrier. With Miller visiting
Gainesville over a football weekend in September 1997, Spurrier
looked him in the eye two hours before kickoff against Tennessee
and asked if he was willing to join "the Gator family."
Basketball teams don't have the 85 scholarships that football
teams do, but it can sometimes seem as if they do when you are
playing against the Gators. Florida's talent up front begins
with Miller and extends across the baseline to Brent Wright,
Donnell Harvey and Udonis Haslem, a.k.a. the U-dominator. With
its unrelenting pressure and waves of substitutions, Florida has
been able to outscore its four tournament opponents 58-30 in the
final five minutes of regulation. To beat Duke in the semifinal,
Donovan gave 10 players double-figure minutes, and every one of
them scored as the Gators closed out the Blue Devils with a
14-0, two-touchdown run. In the final Oklahoma State fell behind
by 17, clawed back to within three with 7:56 to play, then found
itself staggered again, down by 10 a minute and a half later.
Florida's semifinal opponent is North Carolina, the empire that
produced Donovan's two mortal enemies in coaching, South
Carolina's Eddie Fogler and Kansas' Roy Williams, both of whom
he has clashed with over recruiting. While he's not known to
have a beef with Guthridge, Donovan is a resourceful motivator
who sometimes pumps up his players, according to Gators guard
Kenyan Weaks, "by telling us how much he hates the other coach."
Not that Florida should have much trouble reaching the final.
The Gators are fast enough to run past the Tar Heels, strong
enough to bang with them and deep enough to wear them down.
Michigan State has its soft spots, but few teams have been able
to take advantage of them, least of all the Badgers, who are
0-fer this season against the Spartans. In the final Michigan
State has depth to rival Florida's. But the Spartans' great
advantage is at point guard. When the ball finds its way into
Cleaves's hands, a calm seems to settle over the team. To watch
him stride up the floor is to see nothing so much as a
quarterback who advances with great prepossession toward the
line of scrimmage--only this particular signal-caller can do
more than just pass; he can run the option, too. More, Cleaves
has a knack for coming up with plays commensurate with big
moments. As Izzo says, "He's like Deion Sanders for us."
In a Michigan State-Florida final, the pick here is the team
with the broadest shoulders--shoulders onto which the Spartans
should soon be hoisting their coach.
BEATING Michigan State
We asked coaches and assistants who had to prepare game plans
against the Final Four teams to give us scouting
reports--anonymously, if they wished--on the strengths and
weaknesses they saw in the film and on the court. What follows
is a digest of their impressions. First up, the Spartans.
Run your offense at center Andre Hutson. "If you get him in foul
trouble, they lose their offensive presence in the post," says
an assistant coach. "Then you can play them differently." Force
anyone but the Spartans' guards to handle the ball, as only
Mateen Cleaves and Charlie Bell have more assists than
turnovers. Michigan State could be bamboozled by a zone: The
Spartans have seen only one in their last 23 games--against
Syracuse in the NCAAs--and they went dormant against it for long
Here are outtakes from a scouting report prepared by one of
Michigan State's victims in these NCAAs: "[Cleaves] doesn't have
great dribble moves, and his left hand is suspect. He will take
the ball to the basket, but he has a tendency to get out of
control. The big guys might be able to come over and take a
charge.... Take away [Bell's] dribble penetration.... Get up on
[forward A.J.] Granger and force him to put the ball on the
floor.... [Forward Morris Peterson] is only averaging one assist
per game, so play him to score. And try to play physical with
him." Indeed, in the second round Utah's Alex Jensen was able to
body Mo Pete into a terrible first half.
BEATING North Carolina
The first item in Tennessee's scouting report before the South
Regional semifinal said this: "Limit Brendan Haywood's touches."
When the Tar Heels' 7-foot center gets the ball in the low post,
Carolina settles into its spacing, which gives wings Joseph
Forte and Jason Capel chances to slash or spot up. Both are
smooth, but neither is quick enough to get good looks unless
Haywood can contract defenses with a post presence. This was no
secret in the ACC, where rivals did such a good job denying
Haywood the ball that he averaged only seven shots a game and
the Heels struggled. But tournament foes haven't tended well
enough to this chore, and Carolina's inside-out game is
Item number 2 in that report was to control Ed Cota. "You have
to do things on the perimeter that keep Haywood and [Kris] Lang
from being factors down low," says coach Bill Self of Tulsa,
which lost to the Tar Heels in the regional final. That means
forcing the point guard to give the ball up sooner than he'd
like, shadowing him with a larger defender--anything to make it
harder for him to feed the post.
Be patient, for this will be a game of relatively few
possessions--and be prudent, as each will loom large. But at the
same time, as two Big Ten assistants point out, open looks are
so rare, and Wisconsin plays such a good helping man-to-man,
that you must take the shot when you get the chance, even if
that means pushing the ball with quick bursts in transition.
Wisconsin gets most of its takeaways when opponents put the ball
on the floor in the lane, so don't be tempted by what may
momentarily look like a one-on-one opportunity in the half-court.
When the Badgers have the ball, remember: Though they don't
shoot a high percentage, they can score in a hurry if Jon Bryant
or Duany Duany gets loose for threes, so it's important to fight
through every screen. "Their big men do nothing but screen, and
their guards do nothing but move around," says one assistant.
"We told our guys that they'd get downscreened, backscreened and
then rescreened, and that they'd be on defense for 25 to 30
seconds at a time. You get antsy and want to go for a steal or a
block, but as soon as you make an error, they exploit it."
"They want to make it a 94-foot game, so if you make them defend
six or seven passes each time in your half-court offense, their
legs won't be as good in the press or in their shots," says one
SEC assistant coach whose team beat Florida. He adds that point
guard Teddy Dupay is a weak link when he tries to look for his
own shot and that it's worthwhile to tempt Dupay and forward
Mike Miller to shoot from outside: "If you back off them a
little, they'll hold the ball and put up some threes they
shouldn't. You can take charges on Miller because he drives so
much, but you're better off making him a jump shooter." When
Brett Nelson is in for Dupay, the strategy changes. "Nelson can
get too fancy," says the assistant. "Try to be physical with him
and not let him get a head of steam in the open court." North
Carolina may give the Gators problems, the assistant notes:
"Being physical with them at both ends was key for us. [Center
Udonis] Haslem is only 6'6", so he'll have trouble scoring over
Brendan Haywood and Kris Lang. Haslem is a black hole. If the
ball goes in to him, it ain't coming out."
Wisconsin, North Carolina and Florida will gather in
Indianapolis this weekend with pads on.
seasons, Guthridge will forever be just a few losses from
another vituperative headline.
Wisconsin's Bryant, "but if you are a real fan of basketball,
you can appreciate the way we play."
spreading the Gators' run-and-press gospel to every corner of