Tuesday, January 25, 2022

Defending champs on deck for Spartans

March 28, 2003

For a young team looking to make a name for itself, a senior-led, experience-laden opponent is the last team it'd want to face.

No. 7 seed MSU doesn't expect much sympathy, though, as they prepare for No. 6 Maryland in the South regional semifinals at 9:57 tonight in the Alamodome in San Antonio.

The Spartans (21-12) have been motivated this postseason by a now-or-never attitude for a national championship, exuding a sense of urgency for a title that normally doesn't come from such a young group. Head coach Tom Izzo, naturally, is the Svengali in the Spartans' collective mindset.

"I'm trying to get this team to get their own identity," he said. "I've re-lived and talked so much about the past, (but) those guys built the program. I think each team has to get it's own identity."

Izzo hopes he'll be able to brag about this year's team to future squads.

"If this team can get back into a Final Four, people can say 'Hey, remember the 2003 team?'" he said. "I think that's what I always like talking about. When people leave here and 10, 15 years go by. Are they still talking about your team? If they are, you've left your mark. This is your chance to leave your mark, and this is the carrot I might dangle in front of (the team's) face."

The team is following.

"We all would sacrifice anything just to win," sophomore guard Kelvin Torbert said. "Everyone's getting into that mindset where it doesn't matter what we do, we just want to get a win."

But as is the nature of the NCAA Tournament, Maryland (21-9) is just as hungry. The defending national champions start four seniors, boast a talented point guard - Steve Blake - and are playing extremely well.

The battle of experience against youth will be especially fierce in the backcourt, Izzo said.

"The problem is we're playing a team that we think is very good and that has the two factors that really make a difference," he said. "One, experienced guys who've been there before, and two, a point guard who's started for four years. Their guard play has been exceptional."

Blake and senior guard Drew Nicholas have played nothing short of spectacular in Maryland's two tournament games. Nicholas has averaged 19.5 points in tournament play and Blake has averaged an astounding 8 assists per game.

And frontcourt seniors Tahj Holden and Ryan Randle can cause havoc in the paint and on the boards.

"We know they're a great defensive team," Torbert said. "They've got veterans. We just know it's a tough team."

The feeling is mutual.

"Michigan State is a typical Big Ten team," Terrapin head coach Gary Williams said. "In that they are very physical. They have big people, and not just height-wise, playing the various positions."

Williams was referring to sophomore forward/guard Alan Anderson, the 6-foot-6 slasher who has converted to point guard on offense and a team leader in the locker room.

"The changes they have made offensively are that they are playing quicker; they are running more and shooting more in transition," Williams said. "That gives them more versatility in their offense."

Then let the battle of glory-starved youth against the successful seasoned veterans begin. And Izzo knows the games only get tougher if the team continues to win.

If the Spartans can knock off Maryland, they will play the winner of No. 1 seed Texas and No. 5 Connecticut.

The Longhorns seem like a likely opponent as they are favored and have the luxury of playing in their backyard of San Antonio. Texas is led by point guard T.J. Ford, who averages 15.1 points and 7.3 assists per contest. The sophomore was donned The Sporting News Player of the Year and is the main reason for the Longhorns (24-6) success this year.

Guard Brandon Mouton is another offensive threat, adding 14.2 points per game. Mouton also shoots 41 percent from 3-point land. Center James Thomas gives them a paint presence, averaging a double-double with 11.1 points and 11.2 boards per game.

The Huskies (23-9) have been on a hot streak since head coach Jim Calhoun returned from cancer treatment. Led by shot-blocking master Emeka Okafor, Connecticut thrives on defense to fuel its offense.

The sophomore forward leads the nation with 4.7 blocks per game, while adding 15.7 points and 11 rebounds. Guard Ben Gordon paces the team offensively with 19.5 points per contest.

"We're going to have to play some of our best basketball to move on," Izzo said. "But that's what it's all about this time of year."


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