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Badgers again? Lord have mercy

By BRIAN LANDMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 1, 2000


INDIANAPOLIS -- Michigan State point guard Mateen Cleaves remembers precisely what he felt when he and his teammates realized that they would have to play Big Ten rival Wisconsin again.

"It's like, "Oh, my god,' " he said.

Even though the Spartans, the prohibitive favorites to win their first national title since Magic Johnson outdueled Larry Bird in 1979, are 3-0 against Wisconsin, they aren't relishing a rematch in tonight's Final Four showdown at the RCA Dome.

In the No. 8-seeded Badgers' improbable NCAA Tournament run, they've won by relying on an excruciatingly deliberate offense and relentlessly aggressive defense.

Fans outside of Madison have called the Badger style "ugly."

"Maybe offensively, it hasn't been good, but it's always been pretty darn good defensively," Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett said.

While the Spartans may not like seeing it either, they use far different adjectives to describe the Badgers' game plan, especially their defense: effective and familiar.

The Spartans prefer to push the tempo and take advantage of the high-flying talents of a Morris Peterson, but like the Badgers, their foundation is defense.

"I think there are similarities," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "We both stress it and preach it."

Michigan State has allowed an average of just 59.0 points, ninth stingiest in the nation, on .393 shooting from the field. In the NCAA Tournament, the Spartans have been particularly dogged at the end of games. Syracuse didn't score a field goal during the last 5:55 of the Midwest Region semifinal, and Iowa State had just one field goal in the final 4:51 of the region final.

Wisconsin has held teams to an average of 55.8 points, fourth nationally and tops in the Big Ten, on .398 shooting from the floor. The Badgers held top-seeded Arizona and No. 4-seeded LSU to their season lows in the NCAA Tournament, 59 and 48.

"In any sport, at any level, defense does win championships," Izzo said, adding that coaches who plan on "sticking around" for a while emphasize that facet of the game.

Izzo, in his fifth year, has that goal. So does Bennett, who has been around for 35 years doing more than just surviving, thank you. In his fifth year at Wisconsin, he's led the Badgers back to national prominence.

"We started with the notion that we wanted to get guys who were good players, had tremendous attitudes who would be here for four years," Bennett said. "But the one area that we will not sacrifice is attitude."

So, what the Badgers lack in raw, dazzling athletic ability -- and it's significant every night out -- they make up for in floor burns and bruises, given and received.

It gives them the confidence that no matter how they shoot, their defense gives them a shot.

"I love the way we play," said junior point guard Mike Kelley, who set the school single-season record for steals (93). "I think it's beautiful to be able to play basketball, you know, five guys taking on superior athletes with more skill and be able to beat them. I don't know how you can't enjoy that."

The Badgers have completely bought into Bennett's scheme, not that he ever had to sell it. The players all knew how Bennett transformed tiny Wisconsin-Green Bay into an annual NCAA Tournament contender.

"I think I said yes before he could even offer the scholarship," Kelley said.

"It's not hard to get kids to play defense," Bennett said. "I think every good player wants to play defense. He recognizes the value and the need to complete his game. ... The toughest part of defense is once you make the commitment to it or offer lip service to it, you have to work on it. We spend an enormous amount of time working on defense."

Izzo, who took over the MSU program after serving as Jud Heathcote's assistant from 1983-95, didn't even try to sell his defense-first style to recruits at first.

He didn't think he could. It wasn't like he was wooing the cream of the crop.

"The luck came with Mateen Cleaves because he was a McDonald's All-American who liked checking people," he said. "Then, I didn't become as good a salesman as my players became. ... There's been a few times at practice I've heard the lines, "We don't do that here. We guard people here. We check people here.' When players are saying that to other players, they deserve the credit, not the coach."

Of course, Izzo didn't have to say much.

If you didn't work hard on defense, you didn't play much.

"There's a real commitment to it and nobody plays better defense than Michigan State," Iowa State coach Larry Eustachy said. "I don't think enough is said about their defense."

How about an, "Oh, my god?"

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