Sunday, March 23, 2003

Gators-Spartans: Things could get rough

Florida Today

TAMPA, Fla. - Blood on the court? "Maybe," said Michigan State forward Aloysius Anagonye with an evil smile. "Wouldn't surprise me."

Fists flying?

"It could happen," warned Florida backup center Bonell Colas, chin stern and determined. "I know they're going to test us. That's fine."

The No. 2 seed Gators (25-7) meet the No. 7 seed Spartans (20-12) at approximately 7 p.m. Sunday in the second round of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament South Regional.

It's a rematch of the 2000 national championship game, won by MSU.

The makeup of the teams have drastically changed but not the style of play. MSU will try to beat the Gators up.

"We have a reputation, nationwide, of being soft," said Florida post player Adrian Moss. "We know that. What better way to get rid of that aura for good than by banging against a team with a reputation like Michigan State? We're ready for it."

They better be.

There is little doubt what the Spartans, who have led the Big Ten in rebounding for six consecutive seasons, will try to create: a good, old-fashioned battle under the basket. Control the boards, win the game.

It's the standard MSU formula over the years.

"We played Arkansas my first year (in 1995-96) and we were such a bad shooting team, I said the only chance we have is to go get the ball every time we miss," Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. "We had 25 offensive rebounds in that game and beat a pretty good Arkansas team. That started the philosophy that rebounding has to be important."

Thus the creation of something called the "war drill."

Spartans 6-foot-10 forward Erazem Lorbek, a freshman from Slovenia, remembers his first practice at Michigan State.

"We played the 'war drill' for rebounding," he said. "You get used to it after a while but at first ... it's pretty hard."

The drill consists of Spartan players going five-on-five rebound after rebound. The first time Lorbek was involved, he was knocked off the court and on his rear.

"I adjusted," he said. "You have to. That's what Coach wants. You can't play here if you're not tough. When we practice the drill, you get elbows everywhere, in the stomach, to the head. ... but I kind of like it now."

Several years ago, Izzo even had his players put on the football pads once for the drill. The Spartans won the national title that season.

The Gators have other plans. They'll try to pound with the Spartans as much as possible. Then they'll try to run away. After all, it's tough beating up an opponent you can't catch up with.

As UF assistant coach Donnie Jones said Saturday, "It's hard to hit a moving target."

There's little doubt what UF is planning to do - run away from the bully.

"We obviously have some advantages against them with size down low," Michigan State 6-11 center Paul Davis said. "But their big men are so athletic. (Matt) Bonner can step out and shoot the three with the best of them. We've just got to come out and try to control what we can with rebounding. We have to maintain a focus where we can keep them off the boards. If we let them get on the boards, it may get out of hand."

Michigan State isn't known for backing down. The Spartans have outrebounded opponents by an average of more than five boards a game this season. At the same time, Florida has struggled to find an inside game at times. Gators center David Lee is actually a power forward out of position.

Lee showed up at Saturday's press event with a black eye under his right eye - suffered in an 85-55 win against mid-major and No. 15 seed Sam Houston State on Friday night. He may need a hockey goalie's mask against the Spartans.

"We know it's going to be a very physical game and we're preparing for it," said Lee, who had a career-high 23 points on Friday.

Florida will also need a big game from Bonner, a 6-10 senior.

"There's no question Michigan State is one of the most physical teams in the country," Bonner said. "They pride themselves in that, especially rebounding the ball. We know we're going to have to match that intensity."

Gators coach Billy Donovan makes a quick comparison between the way Michigan State plays and another common opponent.

"Kentucky comes to mind right away," Donovan said. "I think there are lots of times in the SEC that there are very big, physical rebounding teams but Kentucky comes to mind (first)."

Florida actually started preparing for this game earlier this week.

"We had a couple of the best practices we've had all year," UF forward Matt Walsh said. "There weren't any fights or anything but it was good, clean, physical practices."

Maybe. Maybe not.

"A lot of shoving?" Moss said of the workouts. "Oh, yes. A lot of it. Fights? No, there weren't any fights ... but almost."

Those may have been saved for Sunday night. Florida will try to run away and hide from Michigan State. But if the Gators can't?

"There could be (some fights)," Colas said. "I know a lot of people think we're soft. We're looking forward to this game. We're not going to back down."

Some still argue Florida is a football school, that basketball is a secondary sport. Gator fans could get a version of both sports at the same time in this game.

"We've got the bodies to throw in and keep rotating players in," Spartans senior forward Adam Ballinger said. "We want to make it a more physical game. They've got great shooters. We feel like we can play different styles just like they probably feel they can, too."

A track meet or a wrestling match?

"I think people get the wrong perception of just a beat 'em up philosophy," Izzo said. "Physical toughness and mental toughness kind of go together if you do it right. All the great teams if you look back the last four or five years, whether it be Maryland or Duke or UConn or ourselves, you have to be pretty tough to win a national championship. The strong survive at no matter what you do."

Let the banging begin.

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