It'll be Michigan State and Baylor in the championship
Posted: Saturday April 2, 2005 12:39PM; Updated: Sunday April 3, 2005 3:57AM
Michigan State (32-3) vs. Tennessee (30-4) Sunday, 9:30 p.m. ET
Joanne P. McCallie has turned the Spartan program from a 10-18 squad into a Final Four player in just five years.
The odds-on favorite to emerge as the Final Four's media star? Michigan State coach Joanne P. McCallie. She's glib, perpetually cheery, and comes with a biography worthy of the Lifetime Network: McCallie has turned the Spartan program from a 10-18 sad sack to a Final Four player in just five years.
Then there's the adorable two young kids (Jack, 10, and Maddie, 4) and the professor-husband who teaches economics on campus.
At Michigan State's open practice at the RCA Dome on Saturday, McCallie was treated like a head of state, from Beatles-like shrieks from green and white-clad fans to adoring signs in the crowd (COACH P FOR PRESIDENT!).
Later in the day she was named the AP's Coach of the Year, a celebration inside a conference room at the Westin Hotel that featured the Michigan State mascot and seemingly half of East Lansing.
"I'm glad to be a newcomer here," said McCallie, who joins Baylor's Kim Mulkey-Robertson as a first-time Final Four head coach. "You kind of want to elbow your way in."
Michigan State hasn't merely elbowed its way here; they've knocked around some powerful teams.
The Spartans pounded not-ready-for-prime-time Stanford in the Elite Eight and have shown impressive fortitude away from East Lansing: Michigan State needed to win at Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Iowa late in the year just to tie Ohio State for the Big Ten crown.
They also routed UConn in Storrs -- which happens once every decade -- and won at Notre Dame. Impressive stuff. And it's why McCallie said Michigan State won't be overwhelmed by the moment.
"Beating UConn by 16 in front of 15,000 people, beating Notre Dame in front of 7,000 people in overtime, beating Ohio State in front of 14,000, to me our schedule has prepared these kids," she said.
While their starting five may not be household names in Indianapolis, it's a balanced group with great offensive punch. Four players average double figures. Senior point guard Kristin Haynie is one of the nation's most underrated players (she registered the first triple-double in school history in the regional semifinals over Vanderbilt) and backcourt mate Lindsay Bowen saved the Spartans from an upset against USC with four 3-pointers in the second-half. She can also handle the ball.
Junior forward Liz Shimek had 24 points and 10 rebounds against Stanford and senior Kelli Roehrig is solid in the middle. The Spartans have a seven-woman rotation, with Haynie, Shimek and Bowen logging heavy minutes. Sophomore guard Rene Haynes (8.0 points) is considered the team's six starter.
The Spartans like to play quick, and their players can score one-on-one if a play breaks down. They play strong halfcourt defense. Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw said playing Michigan State was difficult because of the versatility of Haynie and Bowen, whom she described as two point guards.
"You just don't see that often," McGraw said. "You just couldn't take one away because the other one would bring the ball up. They're just skilled and smart. A lot of intangibles. I don't think they will be overwhelmed by the moment but it is a big moment."
Then there's the interesting subplot involving Michigan State's coaching staff, which includes former Tennessee assistant Al Brown and former player Semeka Randall.
"They are very familiar with our program and our philosophy," said Tennessee coach Pat Summitt, "but when you have been in the game as long as I have and been on television as much as we have, I think everyone knows pretty much every move we make."
Usually those moves lead to an appearance on the final weekend. The Lady Vols will be making their fourth-consecutive trip to the Final Four, and ninth of the last 11 years.
It's an even more impressive showing than usual because Tennessee lost three key players to knee injuries: Candace Parker, the National High School Player of the Year, a gifted freshman guard in Sa'de Wiley-Gatewood, and the underrated Sidney Spencer, who could play multiple positions up front and had a scoring touch around the basket.
To compensate, Tennessee switched Shyra Ely over to power forward following a loss to LSU on Feb. 10 and it's made a big difference. She can still be a little shaky in big games but she's been terrific over the past six weeks and now comes home (she was a Player of the Year out of Ben Davis High in Indianapolis) to conclude her career.
Freshman Alexis Hornbuckle gives Tennessee a unique threat because she can play both guard positions and small forward. Guard Shanna Zolman is averaging 16.8 points in the tournament and is a dead-eye shooter. Point guard Loree Moore (3.4 assists) is an underrated defender.
As always, Tennessee has firepower, though it should be noted that they did not place a single player on the Kodak All-America team. That's a tribute to the Lady Vols coaching staff. The key is whether Michigan State can prevent Tennessee from dominating the boards -- the hallmark of great Summitt teams.
Roehrig and Shimek must play big against Ely and freshman Nicky Anosike, a jumping bean who relishes rebounding in the manner of Dennis Rodman. That's where the game will be won.
"I think we match up okay," said McCallie. " You always get concerned about their inside presence. They love to pound it inside so much. Ely leads a group of players that are very successful. I'm concerned about their outside shooting, particularly Zollman and [Brittany] Jackson. They have a lot of weapons and it will take a team defense effort."
These Spartans seem up for it. "We've been road warriors all season," says McCallie.