As Michigan State prepares to defend its NCAA title, it's worth
recalling an episode from last spring's championship game:
Spartans point guard Mateen Cleaves, his right ankle nearly
broken from a hard fall on a breakaway, telling the Michigan
State trainer that nothing short of amputation would keep him
from returning to the court. As college basketball's stage gets
glitzier, the advantage goes to the grittier. "There's so much
more pressure in the tournament," says Casey Jacobsen of
Stanford, the No. 1 seed in the West region and one of the most
unyielding teams in the land. "You have to have toughness to weed
through the things that get in the way."
This is an article from the March 19, 2001 issue
Ratcheted-up stakes, a half-court pace and the whoopee of
attention are among those things, and teams that aren't tough
enough to cope rarely even make the NCAA draw. Just look at who's
in: Both Eastern Illinois and Monmouth came back from 20-point
second-half deficits to win their conference-tournament title
games. George Mason and UNC Greensboro earned bids thanks to two
good men, the Patriots' George Evans, a 30-year-old gulf war Army
vet who was the MVP of the Colonial Athletic Association
tournament, and the Spartans' David Schuck, an erstwhile Air
Force cadet who burrowed to the hoop in the last seconds of the
Southern Conference tournament final. And as early as January you
knew that Butler would once again win the Midwestern Collegiate's
automatic bid. That's when the Bulldogs, who placed three players
on the MCC's All-Defensive Team, went into Madison and beat
Wisconsin by 14.
Yet as tough as these teams may be, none have the talent to win
an NCAA crown. Best to look among the Top 25 to see who'll
survive the next two weeks and proceed to the Final Four. Even
among this elite, there are "Charmins," as Oklahoma coach Kelvin
Sampson calls downy teams composed of gossamer players, as
distinct from the titaniums and tungstens that will vie for the
championship. Which teams have toughness? And what is toughness,
"It's when you take the game to the other team," says Holy Cross
coach Ralph Willard, whose Crusaders are representing the Patriot
League. "Set tone and tempo from the start. Fight through
screens, set good picks, block out strong, get on the floor for
Toughness can find expression in a combination of the mental and
the physical. Watch Wisconsin play defense: The Badgers rarely
reach or get gulled by a pump fake. Or it can be implanted like a
benevolent microbe. North Carolina turned itself around eight
games into the season when coach Matt Doherty decided to start a
quarterback, Ronald Curry, and bring in a defensive end, Julius
Peppers. Soon comparative softy Brendan Haywood was playing like
a 7-foot, 265-pound monster back.
"Toughness is a skill," says Western Kentucky coach Dennis
Felton, whose Sun Belt champion Hilltoppers rank right behind
Michigan State, the national leader, in that statistical
bellwether of stoutheartedness, rebounding margin. "You can't
settle for rebounds that are going to fall your way. I talk about
taking advantage of soft guys all the time."
--Win on the road. At 28-2, Stanford didn't go unbeaten this
season, 25 years after Indiana was the last team to do so (page
52). But the Cardinal did win all 11 of its road games, a figure
that might be most indicative of who'll wear the crown in
Minneapolis, site of the Final Four. Two of the past three
national champions--Kentucky in 1998 and Connecticut in '99--ran up
the same road record Stanford has en route to their titles. The
Cardinal actually shot better (53.2% versus 50.9%) away from
Maples Pavilion than in it. That success may be the result of
confidence born of thorough preparation. Before his players
walked into Pauley Pavilion and beat UCLA on March 3, Stanford
coach Mike Montgomery told them, "Hay's in the barn, guys,"
referring to many weeks of 6 a.m. conditioning during the fall
that no crowd noise or boastful banners could undo.
On the other hand, only three times since 1980 has an NCAA
champion gone less than .500 in enemy arenas. That casts doubt on
the chances of such teams as Arkansas (3-7 on the road), Georgia
Tech (2-8) and Missouri (3-8).
--Don't get blown out. Only one team over the past quarter
century--North Carolina in 1993--has suffered a loss by more
than 25 points and gone on to win a title. This season that's
bad news for such blowout victims as Cal, Iowa, Georgia, Georgia
Tech, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, UCLA, Wisconsin and, especially,
Virginia, a loser by 42 points at Duke and 35 at Maryland. And
by whupping the Tar Heels by 26 in Sunday's ACC Tournament
final, the Blue Devils put their archrivals on historical
notice. "We'll never wave the white flag," says Shane Battier of
Duke, which had the ball with a chance to win at the end of
three of its four losses this season and whose worst defeat was
by 11 points to Maryland (in a game in which center Carlos
Boozer suffered a fractured right foot). "We have too much
pride. We know what it's like to look into the eyes of a
--Feature a tone setter. For three seasons Rodney McCray led
Louisville in all the tough-guy categories: shots blocked,
rebounds grabbed, minutes played. His teammates on the Cardinals'
1980 NCAA champions nicknamed him Hard. "Rodney would do anything
you'd ask him to do to win," says his coach, Denny Crum, "and you
usually didn't have to ask him."
A parade of similarly flinty fellows have followed McCray to
Final Four winners' podiums. Corey Beck, the 6'3" Lucifer of
Arkansas's 40 Minutes of Hell during the Razorbacks' 1993-94
championship season, was so tough, "He'd say to our 6'10" guys,
'If you can't guard your man, check my little guy and I'll guard
yours,'" recalls his coach, Nolan Richardson.
Illinois has two Hard guys, starter Sergio McClain and reserve
Lucas Johnson; about Johnson, coach Bill Self says, "I think his
family spent its spare time taking charges in their basement." At
Michigan State the tone is set by Andre Hutson, who sealed an
overtime victory over Wisconsin on Jan. 13 with a late blocked
shot. Only afterward, when he began to cramp up and curled into a
ball in the locker room, did doctors examine him and find he had
been playing with pneumonia. They hooked him up to an IV and
declared him hors de combat for a month. Eleven days later,
though, he was back on the floor. "Andre basically says, Listen,
I'm going to spill it all this year, and you'd better make sure
you're doing the same thing," says Spartans assistant coach Brian
Gregory. If that smells like Mateen spirit, perhaps it's because
Hutson, like Cleaves, was a high school quarterback.
--Quantify the unquantifiable elements of toughness--and then
deliver them. Battier is the most literal of take-charge players:
He has drawn 21 offensive fouls this season, which will probably
help assure his selection as the nation's top defensive player
for the third straight year. Charges taken isn't a universally
recorded statistic, but simply by keeping it, coaches underscore
their expectations. In their usual football-staff manner, the
Michigan State coaches grade film and keep track of a range of
what they call "special teams" indicators. "If we can get 40 to
50 deflections in a game, we know we're working hard," says
Spartans coach Tom Izzo. "If it's 20 or 25, we're loafing."
Another "effort and toughness stat," as Gregory calls them, is
shots contested. When Michigan State won at Penn State on Feb.
24, the Nittany Lions' Joe Crispin made only six of 23 field goal
attempts because, of the 17 opportunities Spartans guard Charlie
Bell had to contest Crispin's shots, he did so 16 times.
--Run deep. Depth toughens a team beyond providing it with fouls
to give and bodies to burn. Every day in practice, Illinois
starters Brian Cook and Marcus Griffin go up against substantial
contributors Robert Archibald and Damir Krupalija. That kind of
regimen can anneal a frontline--Shaquille anneal it, if you
will--and may help explain why the Illini have pulled out wins in
four games in which they've trailed in the final five minutes.
Arizona, Maryland, Michigan State and Stanford also prosper by
using 10 players.
--Turn adversity into a crucible. After a dreadful meltdown in
which it blew a 10-point lead in the final 54 seconds of
regulation before losing to Duke in overtime, Maryland went into
a swoon that included a loss to woebegone Florida State. So much
for the hard shell of a Terrapin, right? Not so fast. Coach Gary
Williams scaled back his legendary screaming and found more
playing time for robust freshman forward Chris Wilcox. Soon the
Terps had beaten four ranked teams in five games, including their
nemesis, Duke. Boston College had won only six conference games
over the previous two years, but the Eagles became the Big East
champions because a cast that includes only one new face among
its top eight had been tempered by experience.
Funny how hard times can toughen teams. Early this season both
Kentucky and North Carolina heard the unkindnesses that spoiled
fans reserve for blue-blooded programs that underperform. Each
drew on tradition and pride, regrouped and went on a long winning
streak. Programs with less impressive pedigrees, by contrast, can
let adversity get the best of them: Tennessee is still trying to
find toughness amid all its swaggering talent. Putative leader
Tony Harris sat out the Volunteers' 103-95 loss to Kentucky on
Feb. 14 with a sprained ankle--or at least he did until a fight
broke out. That's when he dashed off the bench in street clothes,
without a hint of a limp, to join the fray. Don't mistake
cockiness for toughness. "They seem more interested in fighting
and trash-talking," says George Washington coach Tom Penders of
Arizona is a vexing case, falling somewhere in the middle of the
toughness scale. The Wildcats have depth, willing bangers in
Michael Wright and Eugene Edgerson and, with such upheavals as
the death of coach Lute Olson's wife, Bobbi, behind them, enough
acquaintance with adversity to have an opportunity to grow.
Still, how tough is Arizona, really, when one co-captain,
Edgerson, briefly quits the team, and the other, Loren Woods,
gets suspended by his coach? Olson recently pronounced Woods the
team's "most important player" the rest of the way, yet there was
Arizona's mercurial center denigrating his own play, saying, "I
suck." Necessary toughening or needless tumult? You make the
--Develop toughness systematically. If you've spent the season
ghoulishly waiting for Duke to be done in by a lack of frontcourt
depth, you seemed to have your wish granted in that Feb. 27 loss
to Maryland when Boozer went down. Yet, in their first outing
without him, the Blue Devils ran and shot Carolina out of its own
building, 95-81. And by the time it had swept through the ACC
Tournament, Duke had unveiled hitherto unknown bench strength in
The Blue Devils have a secret society's worth of rituals and
customs that make toughness a matter of style. There's the Look,
as it's known in Durham, that coach Mike Krzyzewski drills into
his players--"If we're down, you won't see frustration," says
freshman Chris Duhon. "If we're hurt, you won't see pain. You
can't read us." There's also the Fist, Krzyzewski's midseason
analogy for how five individuals can come together into a
powerful force. Soon, Cameronites were honoring Coach K with a
raised-fist salute, as if he were a Dookie duce.
Under Sampson, Oklahoma has the second-best road record in the
Big 12 since the league's founding five years ago, and it ran the
table in this year's conference tournament. How? By going through
such drills as Cutthroat, a half-court 3-on-3 exercise in which
players can score only by forcing a turnover, taking a charge or
grabbing a defensive rebound. Small wonder the Sooners are 3-0 in
overtime games this season. Their victim in the Big 12 tourney
title game, Texas, does a drill in which a player must score near
the basket against both a defender and an assistant coach who is
whacking him with a padded paddle.
Neither, however, may be that conference's toughest team. New
Mexico coach Fran Fraschilla still marvels at what he saw during
a visit to an Iowa State practice. The Cyclones did nothing but
rebounding drills for three hours. "Every day he walks into our
locker room, Coach [Larry Eustachy] might as well have the word
TOUGH tattooed on his forehead," says Jake Sullivan, a freshman
guard who has another word, FEARLESS, tattooed on his arm.
--Become lords of the boards. No team with a negative rebounding
margin has won an NCAA title in the post-John Wooden era. That
eliminates Arkansas, Georgia Tech, Fresno State, Missouri,
Syracuse and Penn State, which loses on the boards by 6.1 per
game. The last three NCAA champions lorded it over their
opponents on the glass. Kentucky outrebounded rivals by 8.1 in
1997-98, UConn did so by 7.2 a year later, and Michigan State's
11.7 rebounding margin a season ago was the key to its success.
This season the Spartans have increased their dominance to +15.3.
"I just tell them to hit and go get it," Izzo says. "There's a
mentality there like a linebacker's. Go get the ballcarrier, go
get the basketball."
What's a more determinative measure of toughness, rebounding
margin or road record? That's another way of asking, Who's
tougher, Michigan State or Stanford? And that's another way of
posing the question that surely has occurred to you by now: Who's
going to win it all, the Spartans or the Cardinal?
Our pick is Stanford. It is, after all, the road to the Final
Which teams are pretenders and which are contenders? Here are our
picks of the ones with the winning stuff.
5 OHIO STATE
12 UTAH STATE
11 OKLAHOMA STATE
3 BOSTON COLLEGE
14 SOUTHERN UTAH
15 HOLY CROSS
Hawks scuffled with French team during summer tour but won't even
get dukes up versus Duke.
How did 14-loss Dawgs get in, let alone wind up No. 8 seed?
Tigers to Kareem Rush 'em home in a hurry.
Saggy Aggie Shawn Daniels, 6'6" and 250, won't be wide enough to
keep Buckeyes from advancing.
Dutchmen flying with 18-game winning streak, but Bruins' flinty
Earl Watson will bring them to earth.
Trojans didn't have a big W all season, and Eddie Sutton's
Cowboys never lose first-round games.
In Mid-Continent, T-birds logged many miles, so trip east will be
nothing new, but BC will spoil it.
Jays' backcourt has Ryan Sears, who has started 123 games, and
top rebounder in 6'2" Ben Walker.
As ex-Pitino aides tee it up, Wildcats' Tubby Smith ought to spot
Crusaders' Ralph Willard a handicap.
Conservatively coiffed Coach K takes on old sidekick Quin Snyder.
For Duke, no fuss, no muss--except of Mighty Quin's forelock.
In Dan Gadzuric, Bruins have big guy to occupy 6'11" Ken Johnson,
Big Ten's top defender, leaving rest of UCLA scorers to run free.
Cowboys sometimes struggle to score, and Eagles don't make it
easy. Plus, Big East champs out to prove No. 3 seed is too low.
Wildcats won 12 of final 14 as freshmen Erik Daniels, Gerald
Fitch, Cliff Hawkins and Jason Parker became rookies no more.
Carlos Boozer is back from foot injury--and how well-timed it
was, forcing Dookies to develop sorely needed frontcourt depth
in Casey Sanders.
BC has no one taller than 6'8", so Wildcats can deploy Marvin
Stone and Parker near basket. When Eagles help inside, 6'7"
Tayshaun Prince will fire away.
Duke. Kentucky. East Regional final. Philadelphia. Get the
picture? Or have you not been watching enough ESPN Classic? Memo
to Aminu Timberlake, wherever you are: Watch your chest!
13 CAL ST.-NORTHRIDGE
6 NOTRE DAME
7 WAKE FOREST
15 EASTERN ILLINOIS
Tuesday prelim gives Big South champs only two days to prepare to
face Illini. No contest.
Niners, one of nation's hottest teams, should take out Vols, one
of coldest--and most maddening.
Seven foreigners on Warriors roster will do what internationals
do best--bust a zone defense.
If Jayhawks continue Big 12 tournament sloppiness, Matadors,
winners at UCLA, will put pica in 'em.
Musketeers must score to press, and Irish hold opponents to
sub-39% shooting from field.
Rebels' vet Rahim Lockhart and top rookie Justin Reed are too
much for Gaels' 6'10" Nakiea Miller.
Bulldogs' balance--six score eight to 13 points a game--will lead
to upset just missed a year ago.
With three top rebounders in backcourt, Panthers will still be
looking for first tournament victory.
Up front, Charlotte has Rodney White, a freshman; Illini have
Brian Cook, Marcus Griffin and Sergio McClain, not freshmen.
"At times we live up to" a rep for being soft, says Kansas's
Kenny Gregory. Now is time for four All-Big 12 Jayhawks to do
SEC was toughest league; Big East had Villanova and UConn shut
out of NCAAs and got low seeds for its bids. Ergo, Irish not as
Wildcats ended Pac-10 with sweep at Stanford and Cal. Should win
here, though barely beat Butler at home in December.
More, better, tougher big men than Kansas. Plus, Frank Williams
and Cory Bradford make up a better balanced backcourt than do
Kirk Hinrich and Jeff Boschee.
How do Wildcats beat Rebels? Any way they want, with muscle
up-front or with the strokes of Gilbert Arenas, Jason Gardner
and Luke Walton.
This would be the third time two teams meet this season.
Wildcats won in Hawaii. Illini equalized in Chicago. San Antonio
is more or less between the two but a lot closer to Tucson.
* The Eagles, five-point losers at North Carolina in November,
picked to beat Northwestern State in Tuesday's prelim game.
1 MICHIGAN STATE
16 ALABAMA STATE
9 FRESNO STATE
13 INDIANA STATE
14 WESTERN KENTUCKY
7 PENN STATE
2 NORTH CAROLINA
Hornets couldn't even outrebound SWAC rivals, so there will be no
matching Spartans on boards.
Who's nastier, Fresno's Melvin Ely or Cal's Sean Lampley? In
March, Bears come out of hibernation.
A 12 beats a five almost every year, and Bulldogs--who made last
two Sweet 16s--are no ordinary 12.
Coach Kelvin Sampson, only 3-7 in NCAAs, wins without a player
among 15 All-Big 12 choices.
Owls, who start three 40-minute men, will get worn down by
deeper, speedier Longhorns.
Gators' speed and agility will get Hilltoppers and huge center
Chris Marcus into foul trouble.
Lions struggle if they're not sinking threes, and Friars hold
teams below 30% from beyond arc.
Unusually small Tigers team will be no match for Heels,
especially after Carolina's drubbing by Duke.
Steep learning curve of freshmen Zack Randolph, Marcus Taylor and
sophomore Jason Richardson too much depth for Bears to bear.
Bulldogs, who almost won at Arizona and Florida, can bang with
Big 12 champs: Casey Calvary is reliable 20-point, 10-board guy.
Texas features four freshmen in top eight; Gators, with almost
entire Final Four team of a year ago, win on experience.
Karim Shabazz neutralizes Brendan Haywood, and John Linehan
harasses Ronald Curry as Providence rules Blue Heaven.
How can you not figure Spartans to prevail in South? This season
they've already knocked off No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in region,
North Carolina and Florida.
In one of several matchups between Big East and SEC teams,
all-court Dixie style once again gets better of grinding,
half-court way Northerners play.
Younger and leaner, these Spartans ought to be more to the
Gators' liking than bullies who beat them in NCAA title game a
year ago. Problem is, with Richardson, State can play open-court
16 UNC GREENSBORO
8 GEORGIA TECH
9 ST. JOSEPH'S
12 BRIGHAM YOUNG
13 KENT STATE
11 GEORGIA STATE
14 GEORGE MASON
2 IOWA STATE
When your top player is 5'10", and foes outrebound you, you don't
want Cardinal on your dance card.
Thanks to Marvin O'Connor, who has scored 18 in less than a
minute, Hawks have speed to advance.
You'd think Cougars and Bearcats were same animal, but Cincy's
guards win this culture clash.
MAC has knack for pulling upsets, but Hoosiers are playing for
interim coach Mike Davis's job.
Badgers' D defeats Panthers, forestalling coach Lefty Driesell's
date with old school, Maryland.
Never mind close loss to Duke in ACC tournament, no team has come
together more impressively.
Hogs can't rebound, but Hoyas can. In half-court game
Georgetown's Kevin Braswell will shine.
Coach Larry Eustachy won ejection appeal and won't sit out
game--not that Cyclones need him.
Forget the effete prep pedigree (the Harvard-Westlake School);
twins Jarron and Jason Collins are finesse frontliners no more.
Hoosiers hadn't reached Big Ten semis in three years, then made
final this season. Now, make first Sweet 16 in seven years. Bob
Terps lost to Wisconsin on Nov. 29, but since then Maryland has
beaten Duke once and twice played the Devils to near draws.
Yes, Cyclones sputtered down the stretch, but after a four-OT
loss to Mizzou on Jan. 13, how did they react? By winning 10
If the Cardinal is vulnerable to anything, it's guards who slash
to the basket. Alas, Indiana has neither backcourt speed nor bulk
to bang with Collinses.
Eustachy has five seniors in his top eight. That's the kind of
steadiness that figures to keep Terps from reaching their first
regional final since 1975.
Cyclones are every bit as tough as Cardinal. But in Casey
Jacobsen and Ryan Mendez, Stanford has better shooters--and Iowa
State will lose in a regional final for second consecutive year.
looked into the eyes of a surrendering team."