Minneapolis So you wanted to see those plucky Gonzaga kids hustle, scramble and scrap their way into the Final Four?
Blame Michigan State.
Or maybe you were pulling for John Chaney, who coached his 11th-seeded Temple Owls to within one victory of the first Final Four of his career.
"Gonzaga is America's team, and John Chaney is America's coach," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said Friday. "When we played those two teams and won, I almost felt bad, because I've got great respect for both programs."
Earlier in the week, Izzo said beating those teams had made him feel "like the guy who shot Bambi." So things might feel vaguely familiar for the Spartans today when they play Arizona, which has emerged as a sentimental favorite since the death of Bobbi Olson, wife of coach Lute Olson.
Although Izzo said he feels great sympathy" for Olson, his Michigan State team has shown little mercy in its pursuit of a second consecutive national championship. The last school to win back-to-back titles was Duke in 1991 and '92.
The Spartans, perhaps the most physical team in college basketball, have held their four tournament opponents to an average of 58 points and have won the rebounding battle by an average margin of 181/2.
"Every time the ball goes up, they've got four guys going to the glass," Olson said. "Most teams will send three. They commit four to the boards and they're quick jumpers. They're aggressive, and they anticipate the shot really well."
Arizona might not be as rough and tumble as Michigan State, but the Wildcats are confident they can hold their ground. After all, they're coming off an 87-81 victory over brutish Illinois. Six Illinois players fouled out in that game and Arizona shot 56 free throws, pulling away by making 16 of 21 in the final three minutes.
I think we just kind of proved to ourselves that we could play a tough, slow-down type of game and still come out with a victory," Arizona forward Richard Jefferson said.
Among the Spartan bangers are forward Andre Hutson, the fifth-leading rebounder in Michigan State history; swingman David Thomas, who had 14 rebounds in a second-round victory over Fresno State, and freshman center Zach Randolph (6-feet-9, 270 pounds), who will come off the bench.
"About midway through the second half, you start to see us get a lot of easy rebounds, and teams start breaking down," Hutson said. "You really start to see it in their eyes, that they're starting to wear down. It just starts getting a little easier, and that just pumps us up a little more to go out there and play harder."
Expect the Spartans to try to take advantage of Arizona center Loren Woods, who is a little thin at 7-1 and 244. He can block a lot of shots when he's at his best, but he prefers to play on the perimeter. Teammates joke about his begging to bring the ball upcourt rather than mix things up in the paint.
"Since he's 7 feet, everybody thinks, 'OK, 7 feet? Let's think about Shaq,' " teammate Gilbert Arenas said. "I mean, when you think 7 feet, you think he's going to dunk on everybody, he's going to do this and do that. But there are 7-footers out there who don't play that type of physical game. He's more of a shooter. He's more of a (power forward) and Michael Wright is more of a center type."
The Wildcats will call on Wright (6-7, 238) and fellow forward Eugene Edgerson (6-6, 237) for muscle in the low post.
"We've played physical teams ever since I've been in college," Woods said. "Illinois was a physical team. What we try to do is just wear physical teams down. Michigan State has a little bit more talented big men (than Illinois), but they're still going to have the same strategy. They're going to come after me. They're going to bang, they're going to bump. I'm going to have to do everything I can do to withstand it, then hopefully I can get some easy shots at the end of the game."