Player to Watch
The only star in Chicagoland who has played consistently better than the Flames' Mark Miller this year has been number 23. Miller, a senior guard, was the Midwestern Collegiate Conference's player of the year, led the league in scoring (20.1) and finished among the conference's top 10 in rebounding, assists and steals.
Illinois-Chicago attained its best record ever because it was uncanny from behind the three-point line, whence the Flames ranked fourth nationally in accuracy. They also have four senior starters, a fact that should assuage any concerns that Illinois-Chicago's first NCAA bid will cause stage fright. Senior forward Bryant Lowe, one of those three-point threats (55.6%), also averages 8.9 rebounds, but how deep into the tournament can a 6'5" 190-pounder remain effective under the boards?
The Flames burned brightly enough to get a No. 9 seed, but they'll flame out against UNC-Charlotte's perimeter D.
MARCH 12, 14/HARTFORD
4 Michigan State
Coach Tom Izzo
Team scoring 74.0 (FG%: 45.2) (3-pointers: 160-445, 35.9%)
Opponents' scoring 63.7 (FG%: 40.7)
Rebound margin +9.3
Team FT% 65.7
Whom not to foul Charlie Bell (79%), Jason Klein (74%)
Whom to foul Morris Peterson (50%), Antonio Smith (54%)
Quality wins At Purdue 74-57, at Iowa 78-57, Michigan 80-75
Player to Watch
Big Ten player of the year Mateen Cleaves, the Spartans' sophomore point guard, cleaves to a work ethic worthy of Flint, Mich., his blue-collar hometown. After enduring the pain of a chronic back injury last year, he pumped iron all summer and lost more than 15 pounds. The result? A healthy Cleaves led the Spartans in scoring (14.4) and was sixth in the nation in assists (7.0).
Michigan State started the season with a 4-3 record that included losses to Detroit and Illinois-Chicago and then went 13-3 in Big Ten play. What happened? The Spartans got physical, ranking second in the country in rebound margin, thanks mainly to Smith, a 6'8" junior who pulls down 8.9 boards a game. They're vulnerable to slow starts, however: Witness 19 first-half points in a 56-54 loss to Temple and a 17-point halftime deficit in their 79-69 defeat at Michigan.
Upset loss to Minnesota in Big Ten tournament and draw of slingshot-toting Eastern Michigan suggest an early exit.