Wednesday, April 05, 2000

UC could be NCAA champs

With Martin, Bearcats at least would have made finals

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        INDIANAPOLIS — It would have been unfair to ask Michigan State how its season might have ended if its opponent in the NCAA championship game had worn red and black instead of that funky orange and blue of Florida.

        In its 89-76 victory, Michigan State played the sort of title game that answered all kinds of questions about the value of talent, leadership and desire and, perhaps most important, commitment to college basketball excellence.

        The Spartans' championship does not deserve any sort of asterisk, any more than Kentucky's would in 1998 because No.1 North Carolina was defeated in the semifinals. You play who you play, and the team that wins six in a row wins the title.

        We can wonder, though. We can't help but wonder.

        What if Kenyon Martin had finished the season on two good legs? Would that have been Cincinnati playing the Spartans? Would it have been UC joining the NCAA's Cedric Dempsey on that rapidly built podium at the center of the RCA Dome floor?

        Martin does not know the answer. He only wishes he had the opportunity. “If I hadn't gotten hurt,” he said before Saturday's semifinals, “we would have been here.”

        On that, he probably is correct. Watching the way the tournament developed after seeing the Bearcats play 30 regular-season games with Martin in the lineup, it was clear they were on a level above nearly every other team in the college game. After Martin rescued the Bearcats from a 10-point deficit in the last four minutes at DePaul, it's easy to picture him exerting the same sort of refuse-to-lose influence upon UC as guard Mateen Cleaves brought to Michigan State.

        With a healthy Martin, the Bearcats would have entered the NCAA Tournament as the No.1 seed in the Midwest Regional. That is the way the selection committee had it figured. Michigan State probably would have gone South as a No.1 seed.

        If both survived, they would have met in the championship game. What a game it could have been.

        UC-MSU would not have been the sort of open-court affair the title game turned out to be. Each team would have pursued a running game, so it would not have been entirely the sort of slugfest that the Wisconsin-Michigan State semifinal game became, but basketball of that sort would have been plentiful.

        Michigan State and Cincinnati were the best defensive teams in the nation this season, shutting down opponents by using physical strength, technique and determination to force opponents toward their weaknesses.

        The Spartans held North Carolina's Brendan Haywood to three shots and four points in an 86-76 victory in early December. A week later, UC forced Haywood into 5-of-12 shooting in a 77-68 Bearcats win.

        When the Bearcats played Iowa State in November, All-American forward Marcus Fizer got 26 points, but his team managed only 60 as UC won by 15. When Michigan State was matched with Iowa State in the Midwest Regional final, Fizer scored just 15, and Michigan State was a nine-point winner.

        Different approaches, similar results.

        What would have made a UC-Michigan State game most compelling, though, were the individual matchups.

        Small forward Morris Peterson averaged 20 points in MSU's last four tournament games, but he would have had to evade UC's Pete Mickeal, who consistently shut down outstanding wing scorers during his two seasons. Although Mickeal did clash with coach Bob Huggins in late February, he appeared to have bought back into the UC program following his benching against DePaul and the season-ending demolition of Saint Louis.

        Power forward A.J. Granger scored 19 points in the championship victory over Florida, but Martin generally destroyed perimeter-based power forwards. It's hard to imagine him being much of a factor. Florida's Udonis Haslem worked over Andre Hutson for 10-of-12 shooting and 27 points, but no doubt Michigan State would have double-teamed Martin and dared jump-shooters DerMarr Johnson and Steve Logan to beat them.

        Cleaves' strength would have made it difficult for UC point guard Kenny Satterfield to use his penetration skills. The most intriguing matchup of all, and the most difficult to read, would have been Spartans shooting guard Charlie Bell taking on the 6-foot-9 Johnson. Bell was as complete a player as there was at the Final Four, but Johnson would have been a different challenge than any other he'd faced.

        As for leadership, Cleaves was the sort of player who would not let his team lose. So was Martin.

        Who would have won?

        Well, it would have been a heck of a game.

        UC No. 1 in final RPI

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