Saturday, March 27, 1999

Michigan St. needs 'A' game against Duke

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — They are the No.2-ranked team in college basketball. Their winning streak, which ripped through the heart of the nation's deepest and most powerful conference, has grown to 22 games. They have an All-American point guard and seven others who've scored at least 16 points in a game.

  • Duke (36-1) vs. Michigan State (33-4), 5:42 p.m.
  • Ohio State (27-8) vs. Connecticut (32-2), 30 minutes after first
        And so America is asking the Michigan State Spartans the obvious question: Do you guys have a chance?

        “You know,” said Spartans coach Tom Izzo, “there have been bigger upsets than Michigan State over Duke.”

        O.J. Simpson over the county of Los Angeles. Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan. Bill Clinton over Kenneth Starr.

        There are no givens, especially in college basketball, which has given us the 1985 Villanova Wildcats, 1997 Arizona Wildcats and 1998 Kentucky Wildcats as champions.

        Atlantic Coast Conference champion Duke (36-1) will oppose Big Ten champion Michigan State (33-4) at about 8:17 p.m. in the second of tonight's Final Four games, the winner earning the opportunity to play Monday for the national championship.

        Duke has won 31 in a row, has won its four NCAA Tournament games by an average of 30 points and features All-American Trajan Langdon and national player of the year Elton Brand in its starting lineup.

        Led by star guard Mateen Cleaves, the Spartans believe there is an issue to be decided, that the conclusion has not been predetermined, that they are not merely scheduled to have a sentence carried out against them by the Blue Devils.

        “I think they're beatable,” said Cincinnati's Bob Huggins, who knows better than anyone, since he's the only coach with a victory over Duke this season. “Whoever plays them is going to have to play very well.”

        The Bearcats and Spartans are not identical teams, though both are tough and physical and deeper in players than the Devils, if not deeper in talent. Michigan State can't draw a lot from UC's win to apply in this game, but the Spartans had their own close encounter with Duke early in the season and lost just 73-67 after falling into a 13-0 deficit. And they learned plenty from that game.

        “There's no secrets,” Izzo said. “You know, everybody that's played against teams like Duke or Kentucky that have been on rolls ... there aren't many flaws, but our approach has been that if they play their "A' game — I don't like to tell my guys — if they play their "A' game, I don't think many teams can beat them, including us. Our job is to make sure they don't play their "A' game. That's the approach we're try ing to take.”

        Thus will the Spartans be concentrating on several key areas in challenging the Devils:

        • Transition defense. When challenged by difficult halfcourt defenses, Duke uses its team speed and superior ball skills to open up the game with fast breaks. A team that does not take the break from the Devils risks being buried by quick scoring runs.

        The problem for Michigan State is that it customarily sends four players to the offensive boards. The last time it held back two players for transition defense was in last season's NCAA Tournament loss to North Carolina. Izzo punished himself through the summer for not playing to his team's strength. That means the Spartans will have to recover quickly when a rebound is lost.

        • Keeping company with Langdon. The Spartans must get cleanly through any screens set for Langdon, who shoots .442 from three-point range and needs only an instant to get off a comfortable shot.

        When the Devils set perimeter screens for Langdon when he has the ball, the Michigan State big men who challenge Langdon cannot turn away from him until he's passed or dribbled the ball. Three times, UC turned away from Langdon after hedging past a screen. Those were his only three-pointers of the game.

        • Force Langdon to guard Morris Peterson. Although Langdon is a capable defender against standstill shooters, multiple-threat wings have punished him and Duke's extended man-to-man defense. Melvin Levett scored 25 for UC, Peterson 25 in the first Duke-MSU game and Bootsy Thornton 40 for St.John's in the Red Storm's overtime loss.

        The problem with playing Peterson at shooting guard is it removes defensive ace Charlie Bell, and Duke could react to a bigger Spartans lineup by placing Langdon on 6-foot-7 Jason Klein.

        • Control penetration. Although the Spartans realize it is dangerous to leave any Devil open outside — especially Langdon, point guard William Avery and power forward Shane Battier — they will try to react quickly when Avery, Chris Carrawell and Corey Maggette drive into the defense. If they are quick to help defensively, they can be quick to recover.

        • Manage Brand's movement. It remains obvious from UC's win over the Devils that the work of power forward Ryan Fletcher in preventing Brand from dominating the lane was a huge factor. The Spartans double-teamed him more because Battier was not scoring then. He's made 14 of his past 24 three-pointers. They'll probably need 6-8, 260-pound Antonio Smith to go it alone this time.

        Some believe there are other essential ingredients in an upset of Duke.

        “I think whoever wants to beat them,” said Temple coach John Chaney, “had better believe in the Lord.