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Bell ready to step in and help

By BRIAN LANDMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 3, 2000


INDIANAPOLIS -- If Michigan State handles Florida's pressing defense, much of the credit might belong to junior Charlie Bell and not All-America point guard Mateen Cleaves.

Huh?

Well, if the Gators look to trap Cleaves as they did against North Carolina senior Ed Cota, a ploy that exhausted Cota and forced someone else to be a decisionmaker, Bell figures to be ready with an answer. He filled in admirably as the starting point guard for the first 15 games of the season while Cleaves recovered from a broken foot.

"With him getting hurt and me having to play point guard the first half of the season, I had to face pressing teams, too," he said. "I know that they're going to try to get the ball out of Mateen's hands, but I'm very confident in my own ballhandling."

So is coach Tom Izzo.

"I think Charlie made some big strides with his ballhandling, his passing skills and was becoming a very good point guard right before we switched back," he said.

EXPERIENCE FACTOR: Although the Spartans start three seniors -- two more than are on the UF roster -- and all three played key roles on last year's Final Four team, they don't see a huge edge.

"This is our first time playing in a national championship game," Cleaves said.

That's exactly how the Gators see it.

It's a new experience for both teams.

"They have a lot of seniors, but that's not going to win basketball games for them," said guard Kenyan Weaks, Florida's lone senior. "Our youthfulness has won us a lot of basketball games this year. I don't know if that's going to be a big problem in the game."

Florida beat senior-laden Oklahoma State in the East Region final. Still, Cleaves said that this is the last shot for he and senior teammates Morris Peterson and A.J. Granger and that adds some extra motivation.

"We just got to go out there and be hungry because we don't have another chance," he said. "If they don't win or whatever the case may be, they have another chance to get here."

NO PLACE LIKE THE DOME?: Florida, Michigan State, North Carolina and Wisconsin shot a combined 36.1 percent from the floor in the semifinals and some folks wonder if the cavernous RCA Dome were a contributing factor.

"I know playing in the Superdome when I was a player, it's obviously a little bit different," Florida coach Billy Donovan said. "I don't think that we have any excuses because we played two games in the Carrier Dome in Syracuse where we shot the ball pretty well."

The Gators hit 48.6 percent from the field against Duke and Oklahoma State. They shot 39.1 percent on Saturday.

"I don't think it was a dome setting," Florida freshman guard Brett Nelson said. "We played in the Georgia Dome for the SEC tournament and the Carrier Dome. I think it was, myself included, we were taking a few bad three-point shots and some bad shots when we got open looks."

Yet Izzo said he thought the spaciousness of the RCA Dome has affected the shooting to some extent. His team hit just 34.8 percent against Wisconsin on Saturday.

"But I think this is probably as nice a domed arena or stadium that we've ever played in as far as having some closeness to it and not feel like you're out in the middle," he said, adding that the opposing defense and the setting -- the Final Four -- were larger factors.

MOTIVATIONAL TOOLS: Donovan had his players watch highlights of the Ali-Foreman classic before the Duke game, clips from the movie Patton before the Oklahoma State game and then the movie Rudy on Friday. So, what's on the marquee for Sunday night? Donovan wasn't sure, but sophomore guard Teddy Dupay had a guess.

"Maybe we'll see Home Alone ... some young kid defending his house," he said.

RACE FOR FIRST: Izzo and long-time friend, San Francisco 49ers coach Steve Mariucci have a competition going as to which one wins a championship first.

"I do have to admit, we've got a race (going)," he said. The two watched tape of Florida together Friday night. "I didn't understand him. He kept telling me to blitz in that situation."

ODDS AND ENDS: Donovan's former college coach and mentor, Rick Pitino, is expected to be at the game tonight. ... This will be the second meeting between the schools. UF beat the Spartans 83-59 in the Fiesta Bowl Classic on Dec. 30, 1987. ... UF and Michigan State have five common opponents (Illinois, Kentucky, North Carolina, Purdue and South Carolina). UF is 5-2 against that group, Michigan State is 4-2. ... UF and Michigan State also met in football's Citrus Bowl on Jan. 1. The Spartans won a thriller 37-34.

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