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Title tale a shorts story

The Gators systematically have worn down NCAA Tournament foes. If the Spartans are bent over gasping for air, and pulling on their pants, watch out.

[AP photo]
Florida's Teddy Dupay, left, and Udonis Haslem try to block Oklahoma State's Brian Montonati.

By JOANNE KORTH

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 3, 2000


INDIANAPOLIS -- It's the shorts.

Teams claimed all season they could fight through the fatigue of Florida's harassing full-court pressure, but one thing always let the Gators know when opposing players were about to give up the fight. They grabbed a fistful of their own shorts.

For support.

"Yeah, we love it when we see them bend over and grab their shorts," Florida guard Teddy Dupay said. "We run back to our huddle and say, "C'mon, we've got 'em. They're tired.' "

Florida has stormed through the NCAA Tournament using its unique combination of full-court pressure, smothering traps and interchangeable 10-player parts. Team after team begrudgingly succumbed. To win it all, the Gators must pull it off one more time.

Florida plays Michigan State in the national championship game tonight at the RCA Dome, convinced its system of attrition will lead to victory against the team perhaps best-suited to combat it.

"I don't know if we're going to be able to wear Michigan State down," UF coach Billy Donovan said. "They're deeper than some of the teams we've played up to this point. They have seniors who can probably handle playing 40 minutes the way we're going to play. But we have to go out and play our style of play. We're committed to it."

Michigan State prefers to play up-tempo, too. With senior point guard Mateen Cleaves at the helm, the Spartans love to run the floor, score in transition and challenge opponents to keep up. They are built for speed, playing with three mobile forwards rather than a lumbering center.

"It's going to be very tough," Cleaves said. "They play a lot of guys; they stay in your face; they press you 94 feet. But we've just got to go out there and enjoy it, go out and play our style of basketball."

One after another, higher-seeded East Region opponents No. 4 Illinois, No. 1 Duke and No. 3 Oklahoma State filed to the pregame microphone to give testimonials about their six or seven players being accustomed to playing 37 minutes a game -- that fatigue would not be a factor against No. 5 Florida's press. Each was wrong.

* * *

"That's what they're supposed to say," UF center Udonis Haslem said. "They're not going to say, "Their press is going to kill us.' They're supposed to be confident and think our press can't hurt them. Then the last four minutes of the game they can't even breathe. Duke didn't even get a field goal."

Michigan State believes it will be different. Three players -- Cleaves and forwards Morris Peterson and A.J. Granger -- have averaged more than 30 minutes in the tournament. But the Spartans have a deeper bench than North Carolina, the Gators' 71-59 semifinal victim, or Duke. MSU goes eight players deep, and three more have averaged 3-5 minutes in tournament games.

"I really believe it's mental toughness," MSU coach Tom Izzo said. "I think some people get tired as the game goes on and some people get stronger. We've always preached that mental toughness gives you a chance to get stronger. Everybody's going to be tired; that's a given. Whoever can get past that is usually the people who win."

The snag is that Michigan State's bench, while it may provide the starters valuable breaks in the action, likely cannot keep pace with Florida's second wave of players on the scoreboard. In five NCAA games, UF's bench has outscored MSU's by 26.4 a game. "There's no doubt that Florida is the deepest, most talented team we've played," Izzo said. "It seems like everybody they bring in is a clone of the guy he's replacing. I do think we need to get more scoring out of our bench."

Michigan State will combat the full-court press with a number of capable ballhandlers and an aggressive mentality, looking not just to beat the traps but to score against them. Florida is comfortable giving up a few easy baskets in the first half for the sake of wearing out opponents in the final eight minutes.

"I don't like giving up easy baskets," Donovan said. "But if you give up a couple and the tempo is where you want it, sometimes it's worth it. It goes back to commitment."

The Gators are confident the system once again will pay dividends, or they'll go down trying. Michigan State plans to be the first to prove Florida wrong.

"Maybe their seniors can withstand the pressure and the wearing down our basketball team causes," UF sophomore Mike Miller said. "But we are going to play our style of basketball. People questioned when we pressed Duke, but Coach Donovan is not going to change our style for anything. Throughout the tournament it's been a question of who has the strength down the stretch."

Who will it be?

The shorts will tell.

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