Sedrick Irvin wore a green shirt, a straw hat and a look of irrepressible pride in his alma mater last Saturday as he stood a dozen rows up from the floor at The Palace of Auburn Hills. Irvin is now a running back for the Detroit Lions, but two years ago he starred in the backfield for Michigan State, whose basketball team had moments earlier defeated Iowa State 75-64 in the Midwest Regional final to earn a trip to the Final Four. Mateen Cleaves, a former all-state high school quarterback who plays much the same position on the court for the Spartans, had no trouble finding him. He whipped the game ball on a line toward a thicket of raucous fans and into Irvin's hands. "Just wanted to show," Cleaves said later, "that I've still got a good arm."
The wait for a college football playoff is over. No need to talk ourselves blue on the chat shows or lobby the abominable no-men in those hideous blazers. Michigan State, Wisconsin, North Carolina and Florida will gather in the RCA Dome in Indianapolis this weekend with pads on.
The first two, Big Ten neighbors set to face each other in one semifinal, are bruising, throwback teams with coaches who cite gridiron influences. "The football game we played tonight was incredible," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after the regional final. "And the next football game we're going to play might as well be the Packers and Bears—it's going to be that tough." Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett calls the Badgers who helped a teammate, Jon Bryant, spring free for five three-pointers in a 64-60 defeat of Purdue in the West Regional final his "blockers." "I grew up around Green Bay," Bennett explains. "I had to use football terms to get anybody to listen to me."
If not for a 6'7", 270-pound defensive end who walked on from the football field, the most ponderous North Carolina team in memory might not have made the NIT, much less a run through the NCAAs, reaching the Final Four with a 59-55 defeat of Tulsa in the South Regional final. And while Florida used something recognizable as basketball to defeat Oklahoma State 77-65 in the East, the Gators' style is perhaps best described in football terms: They emphasize special teams (the second five averages double-figure minutes) and blitzing defenses ( Billy Donovan coaches the same kind of 94-foot pressure he learned as a player and assistant under Rick Pitino).
Indeed, with all the buzz cuts and mouth guards—as well as the 13 losses that underdogs North Carolina and Wisconsin each bring with them, the most ever for a team in a Final Four—Indianapolis will feature a lot more attitude than pulchritude. In this Final Four of broad shoulders, you can find a clue to each team in that body part. The Spartans literally pad their shoulders. Izzo had them practice in football gear this season, just the kind of exercise that helps a team lead the nation in rebounding margin (11.7 per game). The Badgers square their shoulders. They mixed a peerless brand of position defense with timely three-point shooting to take out tournament opponents Fresno State, Arizona, LSU and Purdue. The Tar Heels shrug their shoulders, putting behind them an exasperating season of injuries and defeats, which last week led center Brendan Haywood to pointedly tell any fan hoping to hop back on the bandwagon to "go root for [ North Carolina] State." And the Gators drape arms around one another's shoulders, sharing duties so equitably that this season seven players have taken a turn as the team's top scorer.
An Iowa State-Michigan State game should have awaited us in Indy, for in playing the best game of the tournament the Cyclones and Spartans demonstrated that they were the best teams in the tournament. Michigan State had to overcome a second-half deficit for the third straight game to beat the Cyclones, but the Spartans did so emphatically, with a 23-5 closing rush that included Morris Peterson's alley-oop dunk off a set play, one of the things to watch for whenever Michigan State has the ball (box, below). Cleaves's lob was every bit as perfect as the pass he would later zip to Irvin—and as well-timed as the profane tirade he launched into at halftime of the regional semifinal against Syracuse, with the Spartans trailing by 10. "Somebody said he had one of 'em by the throat," says Izzo, who was still making his way to the locker room while his point guard delivered the philippic. "If I'd done that, I'd be castrated."
Izzo grew up with San Francisco 49ers coach Steve Mariucci in Iron Mountain, on Michigan's Upper Peninsula, before enrolling at Northern Michigan, where the two roomed together. As a basketball graduate assistant, Izzo charted defensive tendencies for the Wildcats' football team for fun. (Today his staff keeps track of such film-room particulars as deflections and breaks down offensive boards into opportunities, attempts and successful rebounds.) He'll script the first four plays of every game, a sort of opening series. He even prefers that his players do their lifting in the football weight room, not in the basketball facility, because there's "just a different mentality there," he says. "A lot of basketball guys are prima donnas. They've been brought up by high school coaches who believe lifting is going to affect your shot."
As the Spartans locked up their second straight trip to the Final Four, their fans chanted, "We want cheese!" in reference to a Badgers team that Michigan State has already beaten three times this season. Problem is, Wisconsin's defense is less cheddar than Limburger, with an essence that never entirely goes away. Judging by the Badgers' offense (they average 60.5 points a game on 42.9% shooting), the school fight song should be Off Wisconsin. But in light of their defense (opponents average 55.8 points and shoot 39.8%), their nickname could be the Badgerers. "If you think we're ugly in games, you should see our practices," says Mark Vershaw, Wisconsin's tuba-playing center.
It's hard to imagine anything uglier than LSU's performance against the Badgers in the West Regional semifinal. The Tigers finished the first half with 14 points and as many turnovers, as Wisconsin guard Mike Kelley, the Big Ten's defensive player of the year in 1998-99, helped put a cordon around the lane. (You can almost field an All-America team with the players the Badgers shut down on the way to Indy: Fresno State's Courtney Alexander, Arizona's Jason Gardner, LSU's Stromile Swift and Purdue's Jaraan Cornell.) In the meantime Bryant, a Division II transfer who had to walk on and redshirt before earning a scholarship, continued his clinical shooting, which has allowed him to more than double his scoring average in the NCAAs, from 7.0 points in the regular season to 16.8 in the tournament. "We might not be the most pleasant team to watch," says Bryant, "but if you know a lot about basketball and are a real fan, you can appreciate the way we play."
The man responsible for all this hoops homeliness is the 56-year-old Bennett, who grew up hanging around Packers practices. "From Vince Lombardi I learned to do a few things but do them well," he says. Bennett took a high school basketball job after attending tiny Ripon ( Wis.) College, and so began what he calls "my sponge years." He attended clinics, devoured books and chewed over strategy for hours with a buddy who coached at a rival high school, even swapping scouting reports before they'd play each other, just to heighten the challenge. Bennett's own coach at Clintonville ( Wis.) High, Carl Bruggink, 62, recently finished his 40th season there, and Bennett still calls him for advice.