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Tampa subregional

Spartans are bruisers, and proud of it

By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2003

TAMPA -- There are only a few hours to go now. There is still much for Michigan State to do to prepare.

For starters, can someone please tape the knuckles? Now? They've been soaking in brine for hours, and nobody wants to lose a good callous, do they?

Then there are the elbows. First, you have to submerge them in glue, and then in the crushed glass. It's an art.

And the teeth. Do you have any idea how quickly teeth lose their points if they aren't filed down every day?

Such is the perception of the Spartans, the bad boys of college basketball. They glower. They goad. They growl.

Now, who wants to play?

Reality, of course, is different. The Spartans haven't used crushed glass in years. Thumbtacks are better.

Seriously, there is a nasty, brutal nature to Michigan State, and whenever you mention it to the Spartans, they smile as if you have complimented their profile. It is a high compliment indeed to suggest that they're an on-the-edge, bloody-knuckle, step-on-the-neck bunch of ruffians.

Other teams glide. Other teams pirouette. Other teams turn the game into a spinning ballet, a visual poem. Some teams are pretty.

The Spartans? They leave marks on your neck. Deal with it.

"We like the physical part of the game," said Michigan State center Aloysius Anagonye. "No contact? Who said that? Basketball has the most contact of any sport."

The deep-bruise philosophy is deep-rooted with the Spartans. The ultimate insult from coach Tom Izzo is to pronounce a player soft. Michigan State has clawed its way into the nation's elite programs with its reputation for fierce defense and furious rebounding. Even now, Izzo says, his team is trying to re-establish its toughness.

They are not the most fun opponent in the game; they are a day's work. The Spartans play basketball like roofers working with tar, like road workers handling jackhammers, like steelworkers shoveling coal into a furnace. They will knock you down, and they will let you lie there.

All in all, it's worked pretty well. This is the Spartans' sixth straight trip to the NCAAs, and three of the previous trips included Final Four appearances.

At the core of the program is Izzo and those veins bulging out, and at the core of Izzo is this barbaric, football-bred philosophy.

Consider this: Rebounding may be the most physical play in basketball, a slam-dance with flying elbows and thrust hips. And the most physical conference in the nation might be the Big Ten.

The Spartans led the Big Ten in rebounding this year. And last year. And the year before that. And the year before, and the year before. And the year before. Six years in a row is pretty impressive. If ever the Spartans don't lead the league in rebounding, expect Izzo's head to explode.

"If there is even a game when we don't outrebound the other team," Anagonye said, "coach goes crazy."

Crazy? How about this? There is a drill at Michigan State -- the war drill, it was called in a less politically sensitive time -- where five players dress in white and five players dress in green. The idea? Get the ball. The rules? Well, there aren't any rules.

"We've had broken noses, broken thumbs," Anagonye said. "Nothing serious."

The idea, Izzo said, came back in 1995, in Izzo's first season in charge.

"We were such a bad shooting team that I said the only chance we had was to go get the ball every time we missed. It was preconceived we were going to miss, but we got 25 offensive rebounds and we beat Arkansas. That started the philosophy that rebounding had to be important.

"The war drill was designed to get our guys to compete on the boards. We just let them hit each other until somebody dropped. It's a very sophisticated drill."

Is that tough enough? Big and bad enough? Well, not always. For instance, there was the time Michigan State lost to Ohio State a few seasons ago.

"We played like a bunch of wimps," Izzo said. "I told our equipment man, 'Why don't you get (football coach) Nick Saban to give you some football pads and helmets?' It started out like what most people would think was a ridiculous scene. It turned out to be the greatest thing we ever did.

"We rolled out the helmets and pads and jerseys. (Mateen) Cleaves was one of the few guys who knew how to put them on. We had some 6-9 guys who had no clue. I'm thinking, 'Someone will write this if they find out, and I'll get crucified.' I wanted to do it because I was mad, but five minutes in, we were having so much fun that everyone was talking about it."

Then there was the time Izzo brought the motorcycle gang in and passed out the lead pipes ... wait, that's next year.

You get the picture. Every drive to the basket is a stroll through a bad neighborhood.

Izzo, however, doesn't think the Spartans are tough enough. At least, not until lately. Hey, if the guy had his way, he'd have a front line made up of Dick Butkus, Lawrence Taylor and Genghis Kahn.

"People get the wrong idea," he said. "They think its just a beat-'em-up philosophy. But mental toughness and physical toughness go together. If you look back, I don't know how many teams in the last five or six years have won the championship without being tough. Maryland, Duke, UConn, us. The strong survive."

From the looks of their victory over Colorado, Michigan State is getting the point. The beast is back, and the warning is out. If you want to get through Michigan State, you'd better have some toughness of your own.

Tonight's forecast?


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