Sunday, March 21, 1999

Michigan State challenges Kentucky birthright




BY NEIL SCHMIDT
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        ST.LOUIS — Kentucky's players will tell you no one in college basketball works harder. Coaching is critical, to be sure. Scheduling, seasoning and strategizing play their parts.

        But at some point, the Wildcats win because that's what they do. Mark McGwire hits home runs. Bill Gates makes money.

        Kentucky goes to the Final Four.

        “That's the reason why I came here and why I'm sure most of the other guys did, too,” sophomore center Michael Bradley said. “You always have a chance to go to the Final Four, and this team seems to always find a way there.”

        Thirteen times in the NCAA Tournament's 60-year history, UK has made the Final Four. If the third-seeded Wildcats (28-8) can beat the Midwest Region's top seed, Michigan State (32-4), in the regional finals at 5 p.m. today in the Trans World Dome, they will advance to their 14th Final Four — next weekend in St. Petersburg, Fla. — and tie UCLA and North Carolina for the most such appearances.

        It also would be their fourth straight Final Four trip. Duke, which went to five straight Final Fours from 1988-92, is the only school in the last 23 years to advance that far more than three years in a row.

        All of which makes for a curious case today: a UK team that went 3-4 last month being favored by 1 1/2 points against the nation's second-ranked team, which has won 21 straight games and 29 of its last 30.

        “We're not going into this looking at ourselves as underdogs,” UK sophomore guard Saul Smith said.

        “We're the defending national champs. Everyone wants to get what we have. You're never the underdog at Kentucky.”

        UK is 21-1 in the NCAA Tournament the last four years and 32-2 in the postseason in that span. It has won 90 percent of its postseason games (54-6) the past seven seasons.

        Michigan State, uh ... hasn't.

        “There's no secrets: We're not Kentucky; we're not Duke,” Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. “We're new to this.”

        The Spartans haven't made a Final Four since 1979, their lone national championship season. Though their talent has been compared favorably with that Magic Johnson-led team, they remain unsung.

        “We've been getting this (disrespect) all year long,” Spartans sophomore guard Charlie Bell said.

        Perhaps that's for a lack of style points. The Big Ten is renowned for bodybuilder basketball, and the Spartans rule with bruising, bullying bravado.

        Though their tallest starter is 6-foot-8 and no Spartan exceeds 6-9, they led the Big Ten with a plus-9.7 rebounding margin. Their three NCAA Tournament victories have been bloody ballets, as they have held opponents to .363 shooting but sluggishly rallied late to win.

        “It's been an ugly tournament, to tell you the truth,” Spartans junior guard Mateen Cleaves said.

        Michigan State is nearly a mirror image of UK. Both like an up-tempo pace. Both have deep benches. Both are balanced, with neither team possessing a player averaging more than 13.4 points.

        “We match up with Kentucky as well as anyone, and a lot of people don't even see it,” Spartans sophomore forward Andre Hutson said. “There's no Ron Mercers or Derek Andersons over there anymore. Underneath that Kentucky jersey, they're the same kind of players as us.”

        The marquee matchup is Cleaves, a second-team All-American, against UK senior point guard Wayne Turner. Cleaves averages 11.8 points, and his 7.0 assist average ranks seventh in the country. Turner, who has played in an NCAA-record 150 career games, averages 10.6 points and 3.8 assists.

        Michigan State certainly could win today, but it surely should get UK's best shot. The Wildcats again have found a postseason peak.

        “This is the way to build a season, so you're coming to a crescendo at the right time,” UK coach Tubby Smith said. “I think we're playing our best basketball at this point. Everyone understands their roles and is playing unselfish. That's key to winning championships.” headUK'S KEYS TO VICTORY

        • Challenge Wayne Turner. Turner often outplays more heralded point guards, especially in the postseason, and UK will need him to contain All-American Mateen Cleaves today.

        • Win the boards battle. The Spartans outrebound opponents by an average of 9.7 a game. The taller Wildcats will need to exploit their size advantage.

        • Feed Scott Padgett. The senior forward has become Kentucky's go-to player, and he'll be ready to take a potential game-winning shot in the clutch. When he's hot, keep it in his hands.

       



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