Sunday, March 26, 2000


Spartans among elite now

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        AUBURN HILLS, Mich. — Michigan State coach Tom Izzo wanted to make his program part of the college basketball elite, and to get there he scheduled every other elite team that would agree to play this season.

        So the Spartans faced North Carolina, Kentucky, Arizona, Connecticut and Kansas in the non-league portion of their schedule, and Saturday they arrived in the company of those programs by achieving something only the best teams do: a second consecutive NCAA Final Four appearance.

        The Spartans became the eighth team since the advent of the 64-team tournament in 1985 to reach the Final Four in consecutive two years. Kentucky did it three straight years from 1996-98. Duke did it five times from 1988-92. Georgetown counts in that collection, making it in 1985 after also getting there in a 52-team field in 1984.

Favorite sons
        Michigan State is the only No.1 seed to make the Final Four, which saved this from becoming the first tournament since 1980 to proceed without a top seed.

        The Spartans have been expected to reach Indianapolis since well before the season, when publications such as Dick Vitale's College Basketball Yearbook, The Sporting News and the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook declared them to be preseason No.1.

        They were not at the top of the initial preseason poll, however, because point guard Mateen Cleaves began the year missing 13 games with a broken foot. Because they lost four games without him and three games in the Big Ten, the Spartans never received the No.1 ranking. But they've been considered tournament favorites by a number of analysts since Naismith Trophy winner Kenyon Martin of the Cincinnati Bearcats was injured earlier this month.

        “The pressure has been there since the first magazine came out,” Izzo said. “We worked through that, battled through injuries. These guys deserve what they got.”

Track stars
        Since center Paul Shirley was injured in a Feb.22 game against Texas, Iowa State's starters consumed 1,982 of the available 2,100 minutes of playing time. That's more than 90 percent.

        In the Cyclones' first two NCAA Tournament games, coach Larry Eustachy did not substitute. Remember that when you hear a team suggest it dropped out of the tournament as the result of insufficient depth.

        He was forced to use Shirley more against Michigan State because the Spartans effectively enforced their size advantage inside. Shirley played 16 minutes, his longest stretch since Feb.16.

Fizer talk
        Iowa State All-American forward Marcus Fizer scored a combined 31 points in his final two NCAA Tournament games; that's 15 below his average. Before arriving in Auburn Hills, he gad scored 20 or more in 12 of his previous 14 games.

        The defensive game plan that called for the Spartans to double-team him when he got the ball on the baseline led Fizer to attempt six of his 15 shots from beyond the 3-point line. He missed all but one. He was 5-of-9 on inside attempts and got no offensive rebounds.

        “I don't think they gave us fits,” Eustachy said. “They're very talented, and they're athletic and they're big. It's tough to score over big, athletic, talented guys.”

Numbers game
        Michigan State-Iowa State was the only regional final in the 2000 tournament between a No.1 seed and a No.2. There were none in 1999, but two in each of the tournaments from 1995-98.

        • The Spartans reached 30 wins for the second consecutive season — and only the second time in school history — by beating Iowa State.

        • Michigan State has won 18 of its past 23 games against teams ranked in the Associated Press poll. Iowa State was No.7 in the final AP poll, Michigan State was No.2.

        • This was Iowa State's first appearance in a regional final since the tournament expanded to four regions in 1956.


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