Sunday, October 10, 1999

COLLEGE BASKETBALL INSIDER


Spartans must replace center

BY MIKE DeCOURCY
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Everything appears to be in place for Michigan State. The Spartans have their All-America point guard back, Mateen Cleaves, and five of the top six scorers from their 1999 Final Four team. They have near-universal acclaim as the No. 1 team at the start of the 1999-2000 season.

        At the center of this issue, though, is the reality that the Spartans' heart is gone.

        That's not the same as saying they have no heart, but they no longer can rely on 6-foot-8 center Antonio Smith for the strength and leadership that made him such an important part of Michigan State's emergence as a national power.

        “He was quiet, but he had a great understanding of the game and was a very good leader on the floor,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “He knew the other team's offense better than (former assistant Tom) Crean. We'd go through a scouting report, and he'd be telling everybody what to do after five minutes. He just handled the locker room.”

        Smith generally was an offensive liability. This is where his replacement, 6-10 senior A.J. Granger, can make a difference. Granger averaged 6.6 points and shot .535 from the field and .511 from the three-point line. He is not particularly strong and needs to improve his rebounding and defense. Michigan State cannot be the same as it was with him in Smith's place, but it can be more dynamic on offense.

        The Spartans will find out quickly how good they are. If you're wondering why UC couldn't land as many big-name opponents as it wanted, perhaps it's because MSU hogged them all. The Spartans are playing North Carolina, Kansas, Arizona, Kentucky, Duke and Connecticut in addition to their Big Ten schedule.

        The Spartans might not hold the No. 1 ranking long, but Izzo doesn't believe there's one team clearly better than the rest. He mentions UC, North Carolina and Connecticut as teams that easily could enter the year with the top ranking.

        “Everybody says it puts so much more pressure on us,” Izzo said. “I think people forget we were ranked fifth at the start last year.”

        BASKETBALL JONES: The featured attraction Saturday morning at the Shoemaker Center wore a plaid shirt and khaki pants instead of gym shorts and sneakers. Antwan Jones did not play ball with the guys who hope to be his future teammates.

        Jones, a 6-8 small forward from Tallahassee Community College, has become the Cincinnati Bearcats' key target in fall recruiting. He made an official visit to the campus this weekend but chose not to play in a pickup game because he'd been in two-a-day practices the past week in junior college and he finished the last of those with a slightly turned ankle.

        No matter. The UC players who watched him shoot three-pointers in his street clothes could easily see Jones has the touch to help them next season if the Bearcats can beat out LSU, South Florida and Maryland for his signature on a letter of intent.

        Jones said he still plans to make official visits to USF and Maryland; he already has been to LSU. He said he wants to play in an uptempo style and that he wants a program with a family atmosphere.

        “The type of people are important,” Jones said. “At TCC, it's like a family. I want to have that wherever I go.”

        UC already has commitments from shooting guards Jerome Harper of Columbia, S.C., and Field Williams from Houston. The early signing period is Nov. 10-17.

        RICE DISH: Kentucky coach Tubby Smith told school boosters at a Cincinnati-area appearance Wednesday that the Wildcats just received a recruiting commitment, but he couldn't identify the player because NCAA rules forbid such comments on recruits.

        According to recruiting services, the player is 6-9, 176-pound forward Darius Rice of Lanier High in Jackson, Miss. Rice averaged 22.1 points and 9.3 rebounds as a junior. He is an excellent student who also considered Duke, Auburn and Mississippi State.

        Rice likes to keep his game toward the outside and is a strong three-point shooter. He needs work on his ballhandling but is rated among the nation's top 50 prospects.

        Kentucky continues its pursuit of point guards Adam Boone of Minnetonka, Minn., and Luke Ridnour of Blaine, Wash. Ridnour visited the campus last week. Boone also has offers from North Carolina, Minnesota, Miami and Duke.

        HE'S ACES: Former UC forward Aaron McGhee, who goes by the nickname “Ace,” dazzled observers at a recent junior college showcase event in Missouri.

        Playing for Vincennes College, where he transferred after last season, McGhee scored 29 points in each of two games and averaged 8.5 rebounds in those games. UC still is talking to him about returning to campus, but he's also gained attention from Oklahoma as well as Texas A&M and Louisville.

       



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