Hoosiers ace Fife squares off against Terps' top scorerPosted: Sunday March 31, 2002 4:29 PM
Updated: Sunday March 31, 2002 5:02 PM
By Albert Lin, CNNSI.com
ATLANTA -- A quick perusal of Saturday's box scores reveals the key matchup in Monday's final: Indiana's Dane Fife on Maryland's Juan Dixon. Fife held Oklahoma's top scorer, Hollis Price, to six points, while Dixon poured in 33 to lead the Terps past Kansas.
"We've got to find a way to stop him or we're in trouble," Fife said.
Dixon has come a long way since he was considered too small to play ACC basketball; he was a first-team All-America this season and is the top scorer in Maryland history. He is a great shooter, can put the ball on the floor and is fearless going to the basket even with his slender (165-pound) build.
He is also clutch. After Kansas cut Maryland's 20-point lead Saturday night all the way to five, it was Dixon who stopped the Terps' five-minute field-goal drought by dropping a tough baseline jumper.
"He's the guy who is on a mission," Indiana coach Mike Davis said. "He wants to win the championship in the worst way, and you can tell that. He's going to put Maryland on his back and try to do that."
Fife has done his best to shut down the opposition's top scorer, holding the likes of Iowa's Luke Recker, Illinois' Frank Williams, Louisville's Reece Gaines and Duke's Jason Williams (forgetting that ill-advised foul) to subpar games. Davis has said that Fife takes it personally when his man scores on him, an attitude that helped him earn co-defensive player of the year in the Big Ten.
The key, though, especially with someone as quick and elusive as Dixon, will be Fife's teammates.
"I think something we've done great all year is putting Dane on a guy like that, then just playing great team defense," junior Tom Coverdale said.
If Dixon is held in check or struggles, Maryland becomes a very inside-oriented club, and Indiana will be able to pack in its defense even more.
"I'm just going to go out there and be aggressive," Dixon said, "just try to keep the pressure on [Fife]."
Whichever side wins the Fife-Dixon battle likely will also win the game.
Playing with the big boys
If guard play isn't your thing, then Monday night's matchup also provides an intriguing frontcourt chess match -- or, more likely, a demolition derby. Both teams have four big, capable bodies they can throw out there, so fouls and fatigue should not be a factor.
Maryland's quartet -- Lonny Baxter, Chris Wilcox, Tahj Holden and Ryan Randle -- took it to Kansas' vaunted frontline Saturday night, even with Baxter in foul trouble. Everyone of these four is a bruiser of the first order, someone willing and able to take or dish out punishment.
"I'm not a small kid, but next to those guys I look like a guard," said Indiana senior Jarrad Odle, the most powerful of the Hoosiers forwards at 6-foot-8, 220 pounds. "They're obviously very physical, very good athletes, very strong. It will be a very big challenge, but I think I've proven I can step up in a situation like that and I'm capable of getting the job done."
Indiana's three other post players -- Jared Jeffries, Jeff Newton and George Leach -- are a little more in the vein of Kansas' Drew Gooden and Nick Collison: lean, mobile, agile, multiskilled.
"[Indiana and Kansas] play a similar game," Wilcox said. "Hopefully we can go out there and bang them and get the win."
The tale of the tape: Maryland's foursome totals 27 feet, one inch and 972 pounds; Indiana's 27-2 and 865 pounds.
"I think you have to go right back at them," Jeffries said. "I think whenever guys are good on offense, it's important to put pressure on them and make them guard you. If you can get a couple fouls on Wilcox, a couple fouls on Baxter, then that benefits you."
Jared and the Miracles?
Fourteen years ago, Danny Manning was a veritable one-man show in leading Kansas to the national championship. Could the same thing happen Monday? Indiana sophomore Jeffries is the acknowledged top player -- by a wide margin -- on the Hoosiers, and his size and all-around skills are eerily reminiscent of Manning's. Both are 6-foot-10, both are great ballhandlers and passers, both can step outside or play with his back to the basket.
Jeffries says he is prepared to oull a Manning and put the team on his shoulders if need be.
"That's what I've tried to do this whole tournament," he said. "If we need me to score, I'll do that. If we need me to play defense or pass the ball, I'll do that. So far, it's worked out great. I'd rather win a national championship than score 30 points. People remember winners."
Incidentally, that Kansas team holds the mark for most losses by a title-winner with 11 -- the same number this Indiana club has.
He ain't crazy, he's my coach
Maryland coach Gary Williams is known as perhaps the most intense, driven coach in the college game. This is a man who says he couldn't forget about last year's disappointing loss to Duke in the Final Four until the first practice of the current season. That means he obsessed about that defeat for more than six months.
Senior Byron Mouton recalls his first exposure to Williams coaching a game. Frustrated with the Terps' play, Williams came over to Mouton and started berating him -- even though Mouton was on the bench in street clothes, sitting out the season as a transfer from Tulane.
When a reporter referred to Williams' "psycho act" on the sidelines, Baxter remarked, "That's not an act. That's just how he coaches."
None of the Terps would have Williams change his style, though. "When a coach is like that, always involved, you know you are going to ave a grat time with him because he's always getting our guys motivated, ready to play," Mouton said. "When you have a coach like that, you always have a chance to win."
We hardly missed ya
Like Utah did in 1998, the year following Keith Van Horn's graduation, both Indiana and Maryland reached the Final Four after losing key members of their previous teams. Kirk Haston surprised everyone in Bloomington by jumping early to the NBA. It was such a shock, in fact, that teammate Fife refused to talk to Haston for 1 1/2 months. "I pretty much felt he'd taken away my chance of going to the Final Four," Fife said.
Maryland lost talented but enigmatic forward Terence Morris, who, truth be told, didn't live up to expectations as a junior and senior. Still, it took the emergence of sophomore Wilcox to make Terps fans forget about Morris.
Brother knows best
Fife's basketball-mad family now has three members who have participated in a Final Four -- dad Dan as a Michigan assistant coach in 1976, older brother Dugan as a Michigan freshman in 1993, and himself.
Dugan, who was a Fab Five caddie during their second straight run to the final, in which the Wolverines lost to North Carolina, had this advice for his youngest brother: "Don't pay attention to what you hear, because then you'll start believing it more. Focus on winning the game and understanding that you can win the game."
Am I funny to you?
Indiana redshirt junior guard Kyle Hornsby -- a native of Anacoco, La. -- is a favorite whipping boy of his Hoosiers teammates. Fife says that Hornsby is somewhat of a klutz, with the tendency to stumble over his own feet. "I keep count, and he's had 632 trips since I've been here," Fife said.
Earlier, when asked whether any had watched Indiana win the 1987 title, all of the Hoosiers starters said no. Jeffries then added: "Hornsby didn't have a TV back in Louisiana then. Mostly radio."
How did Wilcox, who grew up in Whiteville, N.C., and attended his senior year of high school in Raleigh, escape Tobacco Road? Turns out he was a late bloomer, someone who was cut from his middle school team as a seventh-grader and who couldn't make the varsity as a high school freshman. Many schools -- including North Carolina -- stopped recruiting him when it looked like he might not qualify academically. "Coach [Williams] did a great job believing in me and giving me a chance," Wilcox said. Think the Tar Heels, N.C. State, Wake Forest and even Duke might want him now?
Dot dots ...
Indiana has never lost a game for the national title. The first five times the Hoosiers reached the championship matchup, they returned to Bloomington with the big trophy. Branch McCracken coached IU's first two national champions, in 1940 and 1953, and Bob Knight steered the 1976, 1981 and 1987 Hoosiers to the top. ... Saturday's win tied Indiana with UCLA for highest winning percentage in the Final Four. Both teams are at 85.7 percent -- UCLA is 24-4, Indiana is 12-2. ... Indiana usually doesn't practice on Sundays, but Davis led the team in a light walk-through this week. ... With his pseudo bowl cut and his bushy eyebrows, Indiana's Coverdale bears a strong resemblance to the Gallagher brothers, Noel and Liam, of the band Oasis. ... When asked how he would handle the hosannas sure to follow if he coaches Indiana to the title, Davis replied, "I hope I get a raise." When that answer drew a quizzical response from the media, Davis reiterated with a smile, "I do." ... As expected, there has been plenty of mention of the movie Hoosiers. "If we win, I hope they make a Hoosiers II," Jeffries said. Who would play him? "Will Smith," Jeffries replied without missing a beat. "I've got it all planned out." ...
It's never good when your point guard is having a confidence crisis, and that may be the case with Maryland's Steve Blake. He has struggled down the stretch, shooting 9-for-32 (28 percent) in the NCAAs, but with a still respectable assist-turnover ratio of 2.2-to-1. "I've done what I've had to do to help my team win," Blake said, "but from a personal standpoint I can't say that I've played really well." ... Maryland's Final Four opponents, Kansas and now Indiana, are two of the most tradition-rich programs in college basketball history. How do the Terps, who never made the Final Four until last season, stack up? "We're trying to establish ourselves," Williams said. "Our program probably hasn't been as smooth as a lot of those other programs. We've had some ups and downs. But as we go along here, I think we're establishing our own tradition." ... Maryland is the first team in NCAA tournament history to advance to the championship game by facing the top seed possible in every round -- No. 16 Siena, No. 8 Wisconsin, No. 4 Kentucky, No. 2 Connecticut and No. 1 Kansas.