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1998 NCAA TOURNAMENT / SELECTION DAY REPORT

Michigan Plows Through Purdue to Championship

Big Ten: Traylor leads Wolverines to 76-67 victory and conference's first tournament title.

March 09, 1998|ROBYN NORWOOD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — There was no stopping Robert "Tractor" Traylor on Sunday.

He ducked the ropes meant to keep the fans from rushing the court, hopped atop a press table with all of his 300 pounds, stepped nimbly onto the next table, over a barricade and into the stands--and into the waiting arms of his grandmother, the biggest fan of Michigan's biggest man.

By the way, Purdue couldn't stop him either.

Traylor, a 6-foot-8 bull of a center with quick feet and a delicate touch, had 24 points and 13 rebounds as No. 17 Michigan defeated No. 9 Purdue, 76-67, to become the champion of the first Big Ten tournament in the staid old conference's 102-year history.

As far as the NCAA tournament is concerned, Traylor is talking Final Four--"I feel even stronger about it now," he said--and the way Michigan is playing, he might not be too far off.

Michigan, make no mistake, is a team peaking at the right time, and the Wolverines have a tough-to-guard inside/outside attack and the added credibility of a victory over Duke.

And Duke figures to be one of the teams the Wolverines would have to beat to make it to the Final Four.

Michigan was the fourth-seeded team in the Big Ten tournament, but the impressive run earned the 24-8 Wolverines the the third seed in the South regional, where Duke is No. 1.

The Big Ten got the exposure it wanted by staging its first tournament, but it might have also exposed the conference's weaknesses.

Iowa, ranked as high as No. 10 this season, lost to Michigan in a Big Ten quarterfinal and was left out of the NCAA tournament altogether--largely because of a weak nonconference schedule.

The rest of the conference? Recent history says don't stay with any of these teams too long in your office pool.

The Big Ten got five bids, but conference co-champions Michigan State and Illinois lost early and unimpressively in the tournament and don't look ready to do much damage.

"I think Purdue and Michigan are more prepared because of the tournament," Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said. "Michigan State and Illinois probably will go back to the drawing board to make the improvements."

Indiana won one game at the conference tournament and survived as an NCAA bubble team. By the way, the school is expected to pay the $10,000 fine and keep Knight coaching for its first-round NCAA game against Oklahoma.

The Big Ten tournament was a financial and marketing success, with a paid attendance of 21,711 for each session, very close to a sellout even though there were some empty seats at the United Center, presumably either because departing fans didn't sell their tickets or scalpers got stuck with them.

The Big Ten has a two-year contract to hold its new tournament there, and Delany said the league will soon assess the tournament's success and consider its future.

Only two coaches voted against it last time--Knight and Minnesota's Clem Haskins. Purdue Coach Gene Keady, who voted for the tournament but considers himself on the fence, can live with it for now.

"This is like a double-elimination softball championship," Keady said after losing to Michigan. "We lost one, but we can still win the [NCAA] championship."

Purdue, ranked in the top 10 most of the season, is still without guard Jaraan Cornell, who has an ankle injury and is questionable for the NCAA tournament, and forward Brian Cardinal was limited by flu.

But the Boilermakers simply could not stop Traylor. With Michigan's three-point brigade making only five of 15 shots, Traylor came up huge.

He is strikingly difficult to guard, even for a center with a height advantage such as Purdue's Brad Miller, who is 6-11.

"The guy weighs 300 pounds. I'm pushing 240," Miller said. "The law of physics is going to tell you something that weighs 60 pounds more is going to have more leverage.

"He's got soft hands and he can jump. You can't do much about a 300-pounder pushing you. It's hard to get around that guy, and with that much weight, it's just going to wear you down throughout the game."

Miller led Purdue with 23 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists, but Traylor turned the tide in the second half with eight consecutive points punctuated by a steal and a breakaway dunk.

Michigan led by as many as 13 after a steal and dunk by Louis Bullock and another fastbreak dunk by Maceo Baston, who has recovered from a foot injury.

Purdue's Alan Eldridge cut the lead to five with less than two minutes to play, but Michigan proved deft at running down the clock, and Louis Bullock made a key shot with 50 seconds left.

After winning the National Invitation Tournament last season, this Michigan team is on a tournament roll. It goes into the NCAAs with the future of interim Coach Brian Ellerbe unclear.

"I like playing for [Ellerbe] and I see no reason he shouldn't have the head coaching job next year," Traylor said, suggesting the decision might influence his decision whether to return for another year. "You don't come to college to play for three coaches in four years."

And Ellerbe isn't campaigning.

"I believe players should get credit. Coaches, no matter how good, are only as good as the players around them," he said. "That's just the way I look at it."

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