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SPORTS EXTRA / SELECTION-DAY REPORT / NCAA TOURNAMENT

Storm Watch

You Won't Hear It on the Nightly News, but Iowa State's Fizer Is One Cyclone Worth Keeping an Eye on

March 13, 2000|DAVID WHARTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A word of advice about this year's NCAA tournament: Keep an eye on Arizona. Or Tennessee. Or Syracuse. Anyone but Iowa State.

This suggestion comes from Iowa State forward Marcus Fizer, probably the best player in the nation who no one knows about. And he wants to keep it that way.

"It's been a blessing," Fizer said. "Because we continue to surprise teams and surprise teams and surprise teams."

Alas, Fizer might have blown his cover the last few weeks with a string of 30-point games, torching nationally-ranked Texas and Oklahoma State while leading the rarely televised and mostly anonymous Cyclones to their first Big 12 Conference title in 55 years.

Now the rest of the country is awakening to what Big 12 coaches have known for months.

"He's having a fantastic year," Kansas Coach Roy Williams said. "I don't think you can try to shut Fizer down and, even if you try, no one has been able to do it thus far this season."

They have guarded him with taller men inside, where he uses his 265 pounds to muscle to the rim. They have double- and triple-teamed him but the 6-foot-8 junior drifts outside, working off the dribble, creating space for a short but reliable jump shot.

This versatility adds up to 23.3 points a game, tied for fourth-best in the nation, and a 60.8% mark from the field in the regular season.

"He's playing at an MVP-type level," Nebraska Coach Danny Nee said. "He does everything well--shooting, passing, rebounding--he carries their team."

Not bad for a guy who did not appear on anyone's preseason All-American list. Even Fizer seems startled, considering how far he has come in the last two years.

Big things were expected of him after high school in Arcadia, La. Georgetown and Kentucky came calling but Fizer chose Iowa State because he liked the coach, Tim Floyd, and figured it would be easier to make his mark as a big fish in a small pond.

Instead, Fizer struggled. He was the Big 12 freshman of the year but was considered selfish and one-dimensional. Worse yet, Floyd departed for the Chicago Bulls and the dispirited player butted heads with his new coach, Larry Eustachy.

"I expected this phenom," Eustachy said. "To be honest with you, he was really kind of disappointing. He didn't have a lot of pop to his game and he was way overweight."

Eustachy wanted a monster who would run the floor and dive for loose balls. He wanted the kind of player who would do these things in practice.

Fizer wanted numbers. Maybe he was a product of his time. Just as current politics is reduced to sound bites on the evening news, basketball has devolved into a highlight reel of slam dunks. Defense and hustle are mere distractions.

Thus began the battle.

"Marcus was a little hard-headed," assistant coach Randy Brown recalled. "Larry was hard on him, every day, relentless."

The change came gradually over a sophomore season in which Fizer led the Big 12 in scoring but shot worse than 37% in 11 games. No one recalls a turning point, a particular screaming match or benching incident. Fizer simply came to realize that disobeying his coach was "a very big mistake on my part."

Eustachy, true to form, said, "He finally understood--just do what we tell you to do."

It helped that Eustachy added a slick point guard, Jamaal Tinsley, who arrived from Brooklyn by way of Mt. San Jacinto Community College. That allowed Michael Nurse, who was the point guard, to move to shooting guard, his natural position.

Nurse and Tinsley assumed some of the scoring burden and forward Stevie Johnson took on the dirty work of rebounding. With the ingredients for success in place, Fizer and his new attitude started doing the little things.

To his surprise, the more he hustled and defended and passed the ball, the more he scored.

"You can really tell that Fizer has worked really hard," Texas guard Ivan Wagner said. "He has improved 100%."

And Iowa State has looked nothing like a team picked to finish last in the Big 12. Early on, the Cyclones played tough in a loss to top-ranked Cincinnati at the Big Island Invitational in Hilo, Hawaii, with Fizer outscoring Bearcat standout Kenyon Martin, 26-22. Then came a startling run through the conference, highlighted by a victory at Kansas, where Fizer made an off-balance jump shot with six seconds remaining to break the Cyclones' 18-year losing streak at Allen Fieldhouse.

By season's end, Iowa State had amassed a school-record 29 victories and a No. 7 ranking. Fizer's name is on every player-of-the-year ballot.

Now, Eustachy said, "he just has to make sure his head fits through the door because of all the great things people are saying about him."

The notoriety has not been entirely pleasant. A recent magazine article mentioned that Fizer has children by two mothers in two states. The magazine subsequently ran critical letters, one reader suggesting that the illegitimate offspring should qualify him for early entry into the NBA.

The 21-year-old sociology major--who tattooed the names of his son, Aamondae, and daughter, Arae, on his arms--said, "I don't really care what people think."

But he would clearly prefer to skip all the fuss. That goes for basketball too. Fizer would rather sneak up on an unsuspecting tournament, though it's probably too late.

"We know teams are beginning to scout us," he said. "They're beginning to recognize what's going on here."

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