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Setting the sport back a few centuries

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By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 2, 2000


INDIANAPOLIS -- If you think Bucs football offense is high in sluggishness, low in creativity, high in plodding and low in scoring, well, how about the stoplight-red Final Four thud of Wisconsin basketball?

I know, I know ...

The game was tough, manly, confrontational Big Ten style. Style of a hairy, sweaty conference where patsies crumble and muscles rule. But no, Saturday night's Final Four slugathon was more than that.

It was Michigan State, the national championship favorite, spending a ghastly first half playing down to its bumbling competition. Scoring nary a field goal for the concluding 11:40 against the Badgers but leading 19-17 at recess.

Yeah, 19-17.

Bring in Ron Dayne.

It was Wisconsin, which hadn't been to a Final Four since Badgers reigned as 1941 champions, showing why another 59 seasons could pass before they bully into another chance.

Hurrah for Dick Bennett, the Badgers coach. Good for Jon Bryant, Mike Kelley, Roy Boone, Mark "Klutz" Vershaw and the rest of UW's players. Oh, did I forget Duany Duany? Love his name. To make it this far with that act should rank as one of the NCAA's more splendid achievements of a new century.

Oh, the overachieving.

It has become popular, as the Badgers went smacking through the NCAA bracket, to say Wisconsin plays '50s-style hoops. Bill Russell, Jerry West, Bob Pettit and George Mikan might loudly disagree.

Stone Age, maybe.

For 20 minutes Michigan State could've been charged with guilt by association. Even the Flintstones were shooting wild rocks. Morris Peterson, Mateen Cleaves and Charlie Bell -- three kids from Flint, Mich., who set MSU's tempo -- produced a collective, calamitous 2-for-16. Dr. James Naismith, in a grave somewhere, was probably squirming and wondering if it'd been a good idea to strap a peach basket to a pole and invent this game of basketball.

Just a joke, Badgers.

Laugh and move on.

You did get here.

But those Spartans, they are notable fast finishers. In the Midwest Region, they buried Syracuse 17-0 in the final six minutes, then two nights later chopped Iowa State with a 20-3 wipeout in the closing six.

Michigan State didn't chance such a late verdict against Wisconsin. As the second half began, differences in ability, stature and Monday night possibilities began flourishing for the Sparties.

From there, Peterson scored 14. MSU never got to full horsepower, but there was plenty to whack Wisconsin. This season State went 4-0 against the Badgers. If they played 10 more times, it would be 14-0. Hey, these UW gents did lose to South Florida.

MoPete, he's the green catalyst, not the stumpy Cleaves, an All-America point guard whose lack of shooting touch is wondrously overcome by big skills as a passer, leader and defender.

Monday night, if Michigan State is to lose the national championship game, Peterson must be harnessed. That's the defensive key. When his shot is clanging, Cleaves isn't apt to fill the scoring gap. His shot is more brick than silk. Spartans tend to sputter, like in that ugly first half against the fellows from Madison.

Up in the RCA Dome stands, amid a sea of roaring green, was Magic Johnson, hero of Michigan State's only national championship, in 1979. During that opening half, Earvin looked stunned. Confused at bumbling ball-handling and shabby shooting.

There was no Larry Bird on the floor, like 21 years ago when the Spartans whipped his Indiana State in the big one. There was no Magic Johnson. But there was a modern Michigan State bunch that will be difficult to deny Monday night.

"We were a little slow getting started," Johnson said with his signature smile. "Naw, not a little slow. It went on for a long, long time. But my guys took over after halftime. We're going to be okay in the finals."

Poor Wisconsin.

With compassion, a blood red-clad Badgers rooting section never got to chanting, "We want 20!" When's the last time you saw a big-time basketball team keep its scoreboard in the teens until 12:36 remained in the game?

Geez, cheese.

I know, Badgers, it was just an off-night. Probably so. Wisconsin took 22 games this season. Never have Badgers won more. Have I said enough nice stuff so Ron Dayne won't come running after me?

Still, you know, as this all-Big Ten non-classic rumbled along, what the basketball people from Fresno State, Arizona, LSU and Purdue must've been thinking: "How did we lose to them in this NCAA Tournament?"

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