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Tampa subregional

Strengths balance out in this tossup

By ANTONYA ENGLISH, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 23, 2003

Given that Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has been to the Final Four three times, has a 26-10 record in the NCAA Tournament and has a national championship -- how can you call a Spartans victory an upset?

Judging by seeding alone.

The Spartans are seeded No.7, the Gators No.2, so in theory a Michigan State win would count as an upset.

MSU could get it done the way it has in every other win this season, banging the boards and playing solid defense. The Spartans led the Big Ten in rebounding a sixth straight year.

In MSU's 20 wins, it has a plus-5.8 rebound margin.

Then there's Chris Hill. He has moved from shooting guard to the point and admittedly struggled. "It's been a tough transition, very up and down," he said.

But when he's "up," Hill can shoot the 3 as well as anyone. In two seasons, he is third on the MSU career list with 154 3-pointers. If he gets hot, look out. He did Friday night and the Spartans advanced. No other Spartans are averaging double figures, though, in a four-only offensive option.

Close games have not been MSU's strength. In 11 of 12 losses, the Spartans either have been ahead or trailing by four or fewer with around three minutes remaining. Florida, on the other hand, has won.

The Gators also have big-time shooters in Anthony Roberson, Matt Walsh, Matt Bonner -- and Brett Nelson if he's having a good night.

Since Florida can't match MSU power for power, the Gators need their perimeter shooters to step up tonight and take the pressure off David Lee and Bonner. What they don't want to do is get into a halfcourt game with Michigan State slowing things down and taking the Gators away from their strengths.

"We will try to focus on our style of play, pressing and running," Nelson said. "Michigan State is a great team. They are very physical and willing to go up and down the court with us, but we can't slow it down."

To avoid a loss, Florida should concentrate on forcing MSU into turnovers. The Spartans are 13-3 when committing the same number or fewer turnovers than opponents, but 7-9 when committing more. They average 14.4 per game.

As both teams have offsetting strengths and weaknesses, Florida's biggest edge in avoiding an "upset" might be the home-court advantage. Its home court is two hours away, so if fans show up and get in the game, advantage goes to the Gators.

Sort of. Michigan State is road tested, having played Oklahoma, Kentucky and Oklahoma State away from East Lansing. It is used to hostile crowds.

"It might as well be down in Gainesville," Hill said. "The crowd's going to be behind them, but that's why we play the schedule we play."

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