NCAA: There Can Only Be One
Pheiffer Sticks with Number One Seed Michigan State UniversityBy Rory P. Pheiffer
What started as a calm, relatively upset free March Madness has turned into a complete debacle. While the opening round featured only one upset, in the following rounds, the NCAA tournament surely lived up to the hype of March Madness. No analyst could have foretold what the Final Four has to offer. A one-seed, the Michigan State University Spartans, a fifth seed, the University of Florida Gators, and a pair of eight seeds, the University of North Carolina Tar Heels and the University of Wisconsin Badgers. Each team had a different and interesting road to the Final Four.
MSU was expected to be here in the late stages of the NCAA tournament. The Spartans got here by excelling in crunch-time situations. In three of their four games they found themselves in a tight battle before pulling it out in the end. Against Syracuse they trailed by as many as fourteen in the second half, but they fueled a 17-0 run while the game was tied in the last five minutes to beat the Orangemen.
Iowa State was also up on the Spartans late in the match, but Michigan State used a 23-5 run to close the game and seal their bid to the Final Four. The word that best describes the Spartan’s road to the Final Four is perseverance. Peterson, Granger, and Cleaves have all taken their turns providing the key plays that Michigan State has needed in the clutch. They were the favorite coming in, and they have been the only high seed to prove their ranking.
University of Florida Gators
Florida is a very talented young team. They go ten deep and can create difficulties for any team with their full-court press. Florida has been ranked no lower than thirteen in the polls the entire season, so their five seed was certainly a little low. Regardless, not many people thought they had the abilities to get this far, I know I didn’t. The Gators are well coached: Billy Donovan uses all of his talent. Ten players get consistent playing time. Nine players scored for them against Oklahoma State and ten scored points against Duke. Florida runs their opponents into the ground. They apply intense defensive pressure for forty minutes, and keep coming at you with fresh legs from the bench. If they can keep their games close, they will certainly be the freshest team in the closing minutes.
UNC Tar Heels
The Tar Heels have been under-achievers all season long. Finally, they have strung together some good basketball and used it to march their way into the Final Four. Led by their senior point guard Ed Cota and freshman sensation Joseph Forte, the Tar Heels showed fans that they can still play basketball with the big boys. They had convincing wins over the likes of Stanford, Tennessee, and the surprise Golden Hurricanes from Tulsa.
People suspected a team from Tobacco Road would find their way into the Final Four, but nobody thought it would be these guys.
Despite a lackluster regular season, North Carolina has all the makings of a championship team. They have great talent, both young and old, a big man in Brendan Haywood, and a leader in Cota. Guthridge has lead UNC to the Final Four before, so he has the experience.
University of Wisconsin Badgers
Had you thrown Wisconsin into your final four picks at the beginning of the season people would have called you crazy. The Badgers have been extremely impressive in the tournament. They finished 8-8 in the tough Big Ten, and probably got in the tournament after late season wins over Indiana and Purdue, but to think that they’d still be hooping it up in April was beyond anybody’s wildest dreams.
First the Heisman Trophy, then the Rose Bowl, and now the Final Four? This has been quite a year in sports for the Badgers. Ron Dayne is the reason for the first two, and the last, has to be Coach Dick Bennett and his team’s style of play.
The story of much of this tournament has been defense. Wisconsin, more than any other team in the tournament, has shown just what a great defense can do for a team that does not stack up talent wise against teams like Arizona and LSU. Wisconsin’s defense has held all four of their opponents to 60 points or less. They create turnovers and don’t give good looks at the basket. Then, to top it all, they have been hitting clutch shots, namely three pointers.
After two weekends of surprises, what can we expect in the tournament’s last weekend? More of the same or will the low seeds finally come back to earth? In one semifinal, the Gators will be facing the Tar Heels. The Tar Heels had three opportunities to beat the Blue Devils this season, and couldn’t get it done. The Gators only needed one chance and they ran the Blue Devils into the floor. I like Florida in this game. Their depth and defensive pressure will be enough to end the Tar Heels run. Ed Cota should be able to keep his team in the game, but Florida will prove too much in the end.
In the other semifinal we see an all-Big Ten matchup, pitting Michigan State up against the tenacious Wisconsin Badgers. These two teams know each other well, having faced each other three times already this season and the result here will be the same: the Spartans know how to beat the tough Wisconsin D.
From there, I’m going to stick with my pick to win it all. At the beginning of the tournament I said Michigan State was the team to beat, and they still are. While other top teams have choked under pressure, the Spartans have turned it up a notch when it really matters. They have the drive, talent, experience, and the destiny to cut down the nets in Indianapolis, and that’s just what they will do. Mateen Cleaves came back for his senior year just for this moment, and his dream will come true as the Michigan State University Spartans become the NCAA champions in 2000.