Monday, April 03, 2000

Florida's press also a trap

Spartans must handle pressure to win title

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        INDIANAPOLIS — It looks like an athletic frenzy, bodies swirling about the court in a dizzying blur designed to humble college basketball's best teams and most esteemed programs.

        The Florida Gators' full-court press is just that, but also something more subtle.

        What it is is a seduction. It dares Duke's Jason Williams to fire that open 3-point shot. It lures Oklahoma State's Doug Gottlieb into whipping that 50-foot pass upcourt. It tricks North Carolina's Ed Cota into rushing the ball into the lane.

        They thought they were safe, and now they are.

        At home.

        “Nobody's going to run from our press,” said Florida center Udonis Haslem. “Nobody's going to hide from the press. And that's what we want you to do.”

        Michigan State will head for East Lansing regardless of what happens in today's 9 p.m. NCAA championship game at the RCA Dome.

        The Spartans (31-7) would prefer to carry along the winner's trophy rather than the burden of a second Final Four defeat in as many years. If they are to win their first NCAA title since 1979, as opposed to allowing the Gators (29-7) to win their first ever, nothing will be more essential than how they manage the press.

        Each of the three teams that preceded Michigan State opposite Florida was unable to resist the break chances and open jump shots that developed when they were able to cross midcourt. And all those opportunities led Duke, Oklahoma State and North Carolina to an average of 19 turnovers and 40 percent shooting.

        So maybe it's not so wise to run with the Gators.

        “We like to run, too,” coach Tom Izzo said. “Maybe that is some of our style, also.”

        Indeed, two-time All-American point guard Mateen Cleaves is a masterful fastbreak operator, but most of the running Michigan State has done during his career followed an opponents' missed shot and an outlet pass.

        This is something different. Only full-time pressing teams dared to employ full-court defense against the Spartans because of Cleaves' presence, so they've not seen much of this approach. Which is the whole idea for Florida.

        “Basically, every team in the country, when they go to practice, is going to practice their halfcourt offense,” said Florida coach Billy Donovan. “We try to be as disruptive as possible and take teams out of what they practice on a regular basis. Michigan State, with their experience, we counted in the Iowa State game and they ran 21 different sets in the first half. We've got to try to not allow them to run their stuff.”

        Michigan State must be judicious in its approach, running not so much when it can, but when it wants. The back of Florida's press is its most impressive element; 2-on-1 breaks almost invariably become 2-on-2 as the Gators rotate back.

        So the Spartans expect they'll be more productive by running early offense — plays that begin as soon as the ball is advanced.

        To make that happen, Cleaves must keep alive his dribble in those instances when he is able to advance the ball through the press. A four-year starter, he will have to be clever with his decisions.

        Although Florida's halfcourt game is underrated at both ends, Cleaves' tremendous strength advantage over Florida's 170-pound Brett Nelson should allow him to operate smoothly on offense and also to deny the penetration that Nelson needs to keep the Gators' offense flowing.

        “You've got to pick and choose,” Cleaves said.

        “If we're going up and down and we're successful with that, I'd say go with the flow. But if we come down four or five times in a row and we're not getting baskets, it might be time to slow it up.”

        The beauty of the Michigan State-Florida final is that there is no privilege here. When Izzo took over the Spartans, they were a distant No.2 in the state behind the Michigan Wolverines, and he was barely known outside the Big Ten.

        Izzo and assistants such as Tom Crean, Stan Heath and Brian Gregory had to sell the reconstruction of the program that made a national celebrity of Magic Johnson.

        Donovan had the name recognition developed as a Final Four player at Providence and the profile that came from assisting Rick Pitino at Kentucky, but the Gators were not considered a “basketball school” despite their 1994 Final Four appearance. He and assistants John Pelphrey and Anthony Grant recruited prep All-Americans even though the first two teams in the rebuilding process were sub-.500.

        “I could have gone to Kansas and won. I could have gone to Kentucky and won,” said Florida forward Mike Miller, the subject of an intense recruiting war two years ago “But I think we get a lot more satisfaction out of winning when we basically started the whole thing.

        “Maybe in the future people will be saying, "Gee, why'd you pick Kansas over Florida?'”

        Kansas hasn't won an NCAA title since 1988. Michigan's last was in 1989. Tonight, the reigning national powers are Michigan State and Florida. You can be certain of one thing: neither will win in a walk.

Associated Press Final Four Coverage

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