Published: Friday, April 1, 2005 at 1:28 p.m.
Last Modified: Friday, April 1, 2005 at 1:28 p.m.
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) - At halftime of a game with South Florida, Rick Pitino kept the Cardinals on the bench so they could watch a ceremony honoring the school's 1980 NCAA championship team.
"I wanted them to see the difference in how a team is loved when they win a championship, because it goes down forever," Pitino said after the Feb. 12 game.
The Cardinals (33-4) evidently were inspired. They've won 13 straight since the ceremony and play Illinois (36-1) on Saturday at the Final Four in St. Louis.
"You idolize those guys coming up," said senior guard Larry O'Bannon, who played at the same Louisville high school as Darrell Griffith, the star of the 1980 team. "It is great to be a part of. It is like being a part of your own fraternity _ the players who played for U of L."
The ex-Cardinals have spent the last two months commemorating the silver anniversary of the school's first championship, and they see striking similarities in the current Cardinals.
"This team is a very special team. They've got a lot of heart," said Griffith, still the school's all-time leading scorer.
"We're all proud of those guys because they remind us so much of us," said Roger Burkman, a junior guard in 1980.
Start with the rosters.
Besides O'Bannon and Griffith's high school connection, both teams had a freshman starting on their front line and two starters from the New York City area. The old team had brothers Rodney and Scooter McCray, from Mount Vernon, N.Y., and Rodney was a freshman. Today's team is led by Francisco Garcia from the Bronx and Taquan Dean from Red Bank, N.J., and has freshman Juan Palacios at forward.
Both teams also had stars who put in extra work.
Dean and Garcia wore 20-pound vests during individual drills early in their careers to improve conditioning. They still routinely arrive at Louisville's practice facility before sunrise or after midnight and fire hundreds of shots in the empty gym.
Griffith, the 6-foot-4 guard who led the 1980 champions in scoring, spent up to three hours after each practice dribbling around folding chairs and shooting over volleyball stands.
One night, coach Denny Crum got a call from a campus security guard at 1 a.m. to tell him Griffith was shooting in the gym and several teenagers were rebounding for him.
"I said, 'Well, they're not hurting anything, are they?'" Crum recalls. "The security guy said, 'No, I don't think so.' I said, 'Well, close the door and leave them alone.' Darrell was just in there trying to improve himself. He set the example for everyone."
The teams' styles of play are also similar.
The 1979-80 Cardinals were one of the first teams to employ full-court pressure that wore down opponents, yielded fast breaks and triggered scoring runs. Pitino built his reputation on that kind of strategy, and earlier this season he unveiled a 2-2-1 full-court press that was Louisville's staple under Crum.
"Those early years that Denny coached, it was a different wave," Pitino said. "Everyone thought you could win smaller and go to the pressure and create an exciting brand of basketball. That was an exciting brand of basketball they were playing. Everybody admired that style."
And then there's the Illinois connection. Louisville's next opponent provided a turning point for the Cardinals 25 seasons ago.
Louisville was ranked 10th before the 1979-80 season began and entered the late-December Rainbow Classic in Hawaii with a 6-1 record. The Cardinals beat Princeton, then lost to Illinois by 13.
"Illinois just beat our heads in," Crum said. "Our kids, I don't think, had yet learned to deal with all of the stuff, how hard you have to work to be really good."
After the game, the players had a closed-door meeting at their hotel without the coaches.
"We kind of said, 'There is no way we should be losing these games. We have as much talent as anyone in the country, so let's start playing,'" Burkman said.
The Cardinals won their next 18 games, still the longest winning streak in school history.
The current Cardinals have matched the 1980 team's school record for wins in a season _ now all they need is a snappy nickname.
The high-flying 1979-80 team became known as the "Doctors of Dunk" and Griffith earned the moniker "Doctor Dunkenstein."
Griffith said even if Louisville brings home a championship on Monday night, his team's accomplishment will always stand alone.
"The success of the basketball team will always be judged by the 1980 championship team," he said. "I think we set the tone. Actually, being the first to do that, that's what you plan to do. You plan to set a legacy."
ST. LOUIS (AP) - Dee Brown was already a star when he arrived in Champaign, Ill., the state's Mr. Basketball and one of the country's best prep players. Deron Williams and Luther Head weren't quite so famous, known only to the true basketball junkies.
None of the three is lacking for facetime these days. They're the country's best trio of guards, a nasty combination of pure shooting, suffocating defense and unselfishness that has carried Illinois all the way to the Final Four.
"Bringing those guys in here kind of transitioned this program," senior center Nick Smith said. "From getting a bunch of big, strong, tough, mean guys and then just having to outfight people in games, to getting some of the more elite talent in the country and being as talented as anybody else in the country."
There's no question the Illini can hang with anybody now. They flirted with a perfect record, not losing until the regular-season finale, and go into Saturday night's matchup with Louisville at 36-1.
They've been ranked No. 1 since Dec. 6, a 15-week stretch that was the longest to end the season since 1996-97. They've led more than nine of every 10 minutes of their games, and the only time they've trailed by double digits was last weekend, when they rallied from 15 down with four minutes to go in one of the most stunning comebacks in NCAA tournament history.
And Brown, Head and Williams are the ones leading the way.
"They're certainly special," Louisville coach Rick Pitino said. "That's what's made them a fraction away from being undefeated and one of the strongest teams in college basketball. We know that one, two and three, it's not going to get any better."
Head, a second-team All-America, is the Illini's top scorer with 15.7 points a game. He's particularly dangerous from 3-point range, shooting 41 percent and leading the Big Ten with 105 treys.
Brown is the Illini's sparkplug, a blur of motion who can change a game in just a few possessions. When the Illini trailed at Michigan, he turned three straight steals into baskets in less than a minute, giving Illinois the lead for good before the Wolverines could figure out what hit them. He's averaging 13.5 points, 4.6 assists and almost two steals a game.
And then there's Williams. He's the one starter who didn't win at least one Big Ten player of the week award, and was largely overlooked in the postseason honors. Yet he's the one player who is absolutely indispensable for the Illini.
Williams scores in double figures, but he'd rather set up one of his teammates, averaging 6.7 assists per game.
But when the stakes are the highest, Williams is the one the Illini rely on. His scoring average has jumped four points (12.6 to 16.5) in the NCAA tournament, and the Illini wouldn't be here if not for his big games in the Chicago Regional.
In the semifinal against Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Williams scored 21 points on 8-of-12 shooting while dishing out eight assists. He was the one who led the rally against Arizona, scoring 14 of his 22 points in the last four minutes of regulation and overtime.
"It makes it tough for teams to defend us because we have a lot of different people that can bring it up," Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "We have different guys that can create. They all can shoot."
As good as these three are offensively, they're just as dangerous on defense. Williams limited Salim Stoudamire to 2-for-13 shooting in the overtime win against Arizona in the regional final. When Williams cramped up at the end of overtime, the Illini switched Head _ bad hamstring and all _ onto Stoudamire. The country's best 3-point shooter never even got his hands on the ball.
"Just learning from (Dee and Deron) has made me better," Head said. "The stuff that they learned going to all the Jordan camps and the Nikes and going overseas and playing. When they come back, I try to watch those guys and try to learn the things that they do, and it's helped my game out a lot."
Now the three are playing their games in the biggest stage of all.
"Tournament time is so wonderful," Brown said. "It's the best time of the year."
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) - Michigan State's toughness made the Spartans one of college basketball's better teams.
By adding quickness and athleticism, the Spartans have become an elite program _ reaching the Final Four four times in seven years.
"I think we've had as many highlight-film plays as anyone in the country," coach Tom Izzo said.
Michigan State went to three straight Final Fours from 1999-2001, and won the national championship in 2000, with a physical style. The current squad has been regarded as the same type of team, despite fullcourt man-to-man pressure, spectacular dunks and blazing fast breaks.
Shooting guard Shannon Brown bristles when he hears the Spartans referred to as a rugged team.
"We've got athletes, too," he said.
Izzo said Brown and Maurice Ager have developed into more than players with an ability to dunk and score on acrobatic layups.
"What I see both of them being able to do better is taking the ball off the dribble," Izzo said. "You can be a great athlete, but in basketball you have to take the ball with you. If you can't take it with you, you become an average athlete."
Michigan State, however, hasn't forsaken brawn _ not with Paul Davis in the lineup. As the Spartans head into Saturday night's semifinal against North Carolina, the 6-foot-11 Davis is being counted on to display his skills and improved strength against Tar Heels star center Sean May.
Davis, the first Spartans player since Earvin "Magic" Johnson to have three straight double-doubles in the NCAA tournament, knows his task is tough.
"With a player like that, you can't stop him, but you can slow him down," Davis said of May.
And May is equally impressed with Davis: "Paul's about as good as they get. He can really shoot the basketball from the perimeter, he's got some great post moves and he's an underrated defender."
Sophomore Brown and juniors Davis and Ager made the all-regional team after fifth-seeded Michigan State knocked off top seed Duke and second-seeded Kentucky in Austin. Brown was the most outstanding player.
Brown scored a career-high 24 points in the thrilling double-overtime victory over Kentucky in the regional championship game. Davis recorded double-doubles in points and rebounds in the last three games, and Ager totaled 35 points against Duke and Kentucky.
The Spartans' march to St. Louis has provided delayed vindication for much-maligned seniors Alan Anderson, Kelvin Torbert and Chris Hill.
Early departures for the NBA forced the trio into bigger roles as freshmen. Along with former walk-on Tim Bograkos, they fell one victory short of the Final Four as sophomores in 2003, were relegated to contenders instead of champions in the Big Ten the next two years and entered the NCAAs this year with an 81-43 overall record.
Anderson, Torbert and Hill were good, not great _ and for that, they were called losers and chokers. It took them and their teammates nearly two years to snap a 12-game losing streak against ranked opponents because they couldn't make key shots or stops.
Now, State's much-maligned seniors are ending their careers where they thought they would be all along: in the Final Four.
"We're working on sending them out right," Davis said.
ST. LOUIS (AP) - Tom Izzo wanted to take it all in.
Sure, he had already been to three Final Fours, even won a national championship. But the Michigan State coach never really savored the moment, never really appraised what it meant to reach college basketball's promised land.
"The others went so fast," Izzo said. "I'm not sure I took even a minute to enjoy them."
So, after the Spartans had completed an unlikely run through the regional to get back to another Final Four, Izzo did something unusual.
He found a chair at courtside.
And he sat.
"I just kind of looked around and said to myself that I'm going to take a couple of minutes here to enjoy," Izzo said. "If the stars are on the right line, I think I could find a minute or two on Monday night."
But between now and then, there's a lot of work to do. First, Michigan State (26-6) must get by North Carolina in the national semifinals Saturday night.
If that happened, the Spartans would face either Illinois or Louisville in the title game.
No matter what happens, it's been a season to cherish.
"I appreciate this group," Izzo said. "It's been a unique group. I think there will be some memories that will come from this that will last a lifetime."
North Carolina's Roy Williams is back for the fifth Final Four of his head coaching career. He's yet to experience the ultimate _ a national championship _ but insists he's not consumed by the quest.
Someone raised the possibility that he might jump off a building if he comes up short again. If the coach did meet an unfortunate fate, it wouldn't be because of anything that happened on the court.
"One, check Wanda (his wife), because I'm worth more to her dead than alive," Williams quipped. "And two, somebody investigate, because I was pushed."
North Carolina (31-4) has been near the top of the rankings all season, a deep, talented team that was penciled in as a Final Four contender right from the first day of practice.
Williams has tried to mold this group along the lines of the reigning NBA champion Detroit Pistons, who happen to be led by another product of the Tar Heels' deep coaching lineage, Larry Brown.
The Pistons didn't have a true superstar, but that didn't stop them from routing Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers last summer.
"(Williams) showed us clips of that team and he asked us before we went in there, `Who is the best player on that team?'" center Sean May said. "Everyone had their difference in opinions ... and he just said, `You can't tell who the best player is, because they don't care. Everyone just plays together. That's what it's about. That's the epitome of a team."
Last season, Williams' first with the Tar Heels after he was lured away from Kansas, Rashad McCants was the center of attention. He averaged 20 points a game, but North Carolina was knocked out in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
This year, McCants' scoring average has dropped off four points, but those around him have stepped up. May (17.1) is the team's top scorer. Jawad Williams (13.0) and Raymond Felton (12.7) have improved their numbers. And freshman Marvin Williams (11.7) has made a huge contribution off the bench.
"The team is the one who shines," May said. "This team has totally turned around from what we were last year, the way we play and the way we do things. I think you can just see in our play. On any given night, you don't know who will be the leading scorer. It could be Marvin off the bench or it could be Raymond or Jawad.
"It doesn't matter to us. We just want to win."
Michigan State is cut from a similar mold. Maurice Ager leads the way at just 13.8 points a game, but three of his teammates are in double figures and two others just below that cutoff.
The Spartans have a bunch of swingman types, all between 6-foot-3 and 6-6, who defy attempts to pigeonhole them in conventional positions. Size-wise, they might have trouble matching up with North Carolina, which can put out a front line that's 6-9 all the way across (May, Jawad Williams and Marvin Williams). Michigan State also appears vulnerable at the point, where diminutive freshman Drew Neitzel is the starter but Chris Hill and Alan Anderson help out with the ball-handling duties.
"You look at most of the teams in it, whether it be Illinois or Louisville or North Carolina, all of them have very well-established point guards," Izzo said. "We're probably the only one that's still up for grabs."
Williams sees that scenario as a potential advantage for the Spartans. North Carolina doesn't have much at the point beyond Felton.
"We're a little vulnerable when Raymond gets in foul trouble or has to be given a rest," Williams said. "I like it where you have more than one."
NEW YORK (AP) - Carlos Powell had less than 2 1/2 minutes remaining in his college career when South Carolina coach Dave Odom put him on the bench.
The Gamecocks star forward couldn't believe it. How could this be happening to him when his team had a one-point lead over Saint Joseph's in the NIT championship game?
"The answer simply is, he was tired," Odom said. "He had just missed two inside layups, chippies for him.
"He said, `What are you doing?' I said `You're human, too. You're tired. Sit and I'll get you back.' He did, and came back very, very well."
Powell got on the floor soon after and was in the thick of the celebration when Tarence Kinsey's tiebreaking 3-pointer with 1.3 seconds left gave South Carolina a 60-57 victory Thursday night.
Powell scored a game-high 16 points and was chosen tournament MVP, showing no problems with the right forearm he strained in the semifinal victory over Maryland on Tuesday.
He had 31 points and grabbed 16 rebounds in his final two games.
South Carolina (20-13) reached 20 wins for the third time in Odom's four seasons and earned the first NIT title in school history after being the runner-up in 2002.
"It is great as seniors to be champions," said Powell, the Gamecocks' career leader in games played. "It is a great thing for us."
Odom improved to 16-3 in the NIT. He also won it in 2000 with Wake Forest.
A day earlier, Powell said winning this title would be better than a first-round loss in the NCAA tournament. The latter is how last season ended, and he wanted to leave as a winner.
Once Mississippi beat the Gamecocks in the first round of the Southeastern Conference tournament, the "big dance" was out of reach this year.
"We came back a day off and had practice. We didn't know what we were practicing for," Powell said. "We decided from there on out we were going to have fun."
Pat Carroll's college farewell game was anything but enjoyable.
The Saint Joseph's sharpshooter couldn't find the range all night, that is until there were 7.7 seconds left.
His 19th shot, 13th from behind the arc, went in to tie it at 57. But that was only his fifth successful attempt, and only the second good one from 3-point range.
"You're going to have good nights and bad nights as a basketball player. Tonight was definitely a bad night," the Atlantic 10 co-player of the year said. "The only thing I wanted to do as a player was have no regrets."
His Hawks career ended with a 15-point performance, after he averaged 20.6 in the first five NIT games.
Known more for defense, Kinsey's 3-pointer was the one that made the difference.
"I figured if I miss we're in OT," Kinsey said. "I didn't want to pass because of the time, so I said, `Why not take the shot?'"
He was only in to guard Carroll, and had been substituted on offense-defense switches down the stretch. As Kinsey crossed midcourt, Odom was about to call timeout to get shooter Josh Gonner back in.
But he didn't.
"I didn't want their defense to set for the last play. So I swallowed my tongue, or whatever," Odom said. "The irony is, had I called a timeout, I would have put Josh in and taken Tarence out _ no question."
South Carolina was only the second team in the NIT to get to 60 points against the Hawks (24-12), who controlled the tempo with ball control and good defense.
The Hawks were 22-2 when holding opponents to 60 points or fewer.
"I felt if we could hit 60 we would win," Odom said. "I didn't know it would come on the last shot."
The Hawks started 3-6 in the follow-up season to their run to the NCAA regional finals. They turned things around and went 21-6 after Jan. 1.
"They will fight you, scratch you and claw you until there is nothing left," coach Phil Martelli said. "I am eternally grateful to them for all their efforts, all their emotion, all of their flaws."
Kinsey made two free throws to make it 56-51 with 27.4 seconds remaining, 7 seconds before Chet Stachitas' 3-pointer brought the Hawks within two.
South Carolina's Rocky Trice made 1 of 2 from the line, giving Saint Joseph's a chance to tie _ and Carroll came through.
"That shot only tied the game," Carroll said. "There was absolutely no satisfaction when that shot went in."
Tell that to the crowd of 11,555 _ made up of mostly Saint Joseph's fans _ that erupted in cheers only to have them silenced seconds later.
Saint Joseph's got to the title game the hard way, starting in the opening round and playing four times before reaching New York. Of the final four teams, only the Hawks played in the opening round. They were also the only team to play on the road before reaching Madison Square Garden.
The Hawks were also the NIT runners-up in 1996, Martelli's first season as coach.
"We are not going to leave here in second place, we are going to leave as champions," he said. "It just doesn't say that in the end result."
Notes:@ South Carolina F Renaldo Balkman left the game with 11 minutes remaining after getting hit in the face going for a rebound. ... Carroll was 2-of-13 in a loss to Drexel in Saint Joseph's second game of the season. ... South Carolina leads the series 7-1.
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