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SOUTH REGIONAL

Spartans Don't Miss the Point

March 30, 2003|Paul Gutierrez | Times Staff Writer

SAN ANTONIO — The way Texas sees it, Michigan State's Achilles' heel is also its greatest strength.

The Spartans have advanced to today's South Regional championship game without the services of a true point guard, employing three natural shooting guards to run the offense.

"I think they have the advantage," Texas Coach Rick Barnes said with a smile. "Three or four players is better than one. We've never gotten caught up in matchups."

It's usually the other team worrying about such things, with the Longhorns boasting the quickest and most creative playmaker around, sophomore T.J. Ford.

"It hasn't been pretty, but we've hung in there," said Michigan State sophomore Chris Hill, who shares point guard responsibilities with Alan Anderson and Kelvin Torbert. "Texas is the exact opposite with arguably the best point guard in the country."

The top-seeded Longhorns (25-6) showed they were more than a one-man team Friday, beating No. 5 Connecticut, 82-78, even though Ford, a national player-of-the-year candidate, sat out much of the second half because of foul trouble.

The seventh-seeded Spartans (22-12) survived a late 15-0 Maryland run to end the reign of the defending national champion Terrapins in the other semifinal.

Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo presumably was only joking when he said he was thinking about using a box-and-one defense on Ford, with four Spartans guarding him and one Michigan State player marking the rest of the Longhorns.

"The problem with a guy like that is that he makes the other four players on the court better, and that's the sign of a truly great player," Izzo said. "He does seem to have more than three or four gears.

"I saw a quote from [Texas Tech Coach] Bobby Knight where he said [Ford] threw one pass in their game where he wanted to stand up and clap. For Bobby Knight to clap for an opponent, that must have been a [great] pass."

So how should the Spartans deal with Ford in their attempt to reach their fourth Final Four in five years?

Maybe they should just give him space.

"You know you can't stop a great player," Torbert said. "You've just got to contain him and make everything tough and make everything difficult, not give him easy passing lanes and try not to let him create."

The Longhorns, who last played in the Elite Eight in 1990, respect the Spartans' ability to get this far without a point guard, especially with a relatively young and inexperienced roster.

And Ford, who is averaging 14 points, 6.7 rebounds and 9.3 assists in the NCAA tournament, insists his eyes won't get bigger than his stomach when he sees Michigan State's cobbled-together point guard committee.

"I don't think my mind-set will be any different, because they know how to win without a point guard," Ford said.

"They believe in each other and when you're in transition, it doesn't really matter who brings the ball up court if you have three guys that can handle the ball."

Michigan State has also been getting it done with a bruising defense, giving up an average of 56 points in the tournament. Texas is averaging 80.3 points.

"It will be a physical game from the time the jump ball is tossed up," said Texas' junior center, James Thomas. "There will be bodies flying everywhere. That's fine because physical is the type of game we play."

Regardless of style, the home-state team is sure to be aided by the sea of burnt orange that will fill the Alamodome, as it did Friday when an estimated 25,000 of the 30,000-plus in attendance were Longhorn loyalists.

But that doesn't frighten the Spartans, who beat Kentucky in Lexington earlier this season and pounded Florida at Tampa in the second round of the tournament.

"We've played in some tough places and I think we're ready to accept it as a challenge instead of fear," Izzo said. "It's going to be an old-fashioned fist fight. Let's see who wins. If we survive, then we would have done it the right way."

Even if it means doing it without a point guard.

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