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Tough Stuff
Alexander Wolff
March 19, 2001
As the battle for the national title unfolds, the teams with true grit will have the best chance of surviving all the way to the Final Four in Minneapolis
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March 19, 2001

Tough Stuff

As the battle for the national title unfolds, the teams with true grit will have the best chance of surviving all the way to the Final Four in Minneapolis

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Which teams are pretenders and which arc contenders? Here are our picks of the ones with the winning stuff.


Hawks scuffled with French team during summer tour but won't even get dukes up versus Duke.

Conservatively coiffed Coach K takes on old sidekick Quin Snyder. For Duke, no fuss, no muss—except of Mighty Quin's forelock.

Carlos Boozer is back from foot injury--and how well timed it was, forcing Dookies to develop sorely needed frontcourt depth in Casey Sanders.

Duke, Kentucky. East Regional final. Philadelphia. Get the picture? Or have you not been watching enough ESPN Classic? Memo to Aminu Timberlake, wherever you are: Watch your chest!



How did 14 loss Dawgs get in, let alone wind up No. 8 seed? Tigers to Kareem Rush 'em home in a hurry.



Saggy Aggie Shawn Daniels, 6'6" and 250, won't be wide enough to keep Buckeyes from advancing.

In Dan Gadzuric, Bruins have big guy to occupy 6'11" Ken Johnson, Big Ten's top defender, leaving rest of UCLA scorers to run free.



Dutchmen flying with 18 game winning streak, but Bruins' flinty Earl Watson will bring them to earth.



Trojans didn't have a big W all season, and Eddie Sutton's Cowboys never lose first-round games.

Cowboys sometimes struggle to score, and Eagles don't make it easy. Plus, Big East champs out to prove No. 3 seed is too low.

BC has no one taller than 6'8", so Wildcats can deploy Marvin Stone and Parker near basket. When Eagles help inside, 6'7" Tayshaun Prince will fire away.



In Mid-Continent, T-birds logged many miles, so trip east will be nothing new, but BC will spoil it.



Jays' backcourt has Ryan Sears, who has started 123 games, and top rebounder in 6'2" Ben Walker.

Wildcats won 12 of final 14 as freshmen Erik Daniels, Gerald Fitch, Cliff Hawkins and Jason Parker became rookies no more.



As ex-Pitino aides tee it up, Wildcats' Tubby Smith ought to spot Crusaders' Ralph Willard a handicap.


As Michigan State prepares to defend its NCAA title, it's worth recalling an episode from last spring's championship game: Spartans point guard Mateen Cleaves, his right ankle nearly broken from a hard fall on a breakaway, telling the Michigan State trainer that nothing short of amputation would keep him from returning to the court. As college basketball's stage gets glitzier, the advantage goes to the grittier. "There's so much more pressure in the tournament," says Casey Jacobsen of Stanford, the No. 1 seed in the West region and one of the most unyielding teams in the land. "You have to have toughness to weed through the things that get in the way."

Ratcheted-up stakes, a half-court pace and the whoopee of attention are among those things, and teams that aren't tough enough to cope rarely even make the NCAA draw. Just look at who's in: Both Eastern Illinois and Monmouth came back from 20-point second-half deficits to win their conference-tournament title games. George Mason and UNC Greensboro earned bids thanks to two good men, the Patriots' George Evans, a 30-year-old gulf war Army vet who was the MVP of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament, and the Spartans' David Schuck, an erstwhile Air Force cadet who burrowed to the hoop in the last seconds of the Southern Conference tournament final. And as early as January you knew that Butler would once again win the Midwestern Collegiate's automatic bid. That's when the Bulldogs, who placed three players on the MCC's All-Defensive Team, went into Madison and beat Wisconsin by 14.

Yet as tough as these teams may be, none have the talent to win an NCAA crown. Best to look among the Top 25 to see who'll survive the next two weeks and proceed to the Final Four. Even among this elite, there are "Charmins," as Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson calls downy teams composed of gossamer players, as distinct from the titaniums and tungstens that will vie for the championship. Which teams have toughness? And what is toughness, anyway?

"It's when you take the game to the other team," says Holy Cross coach Ralph Willard, whose Crusaders are representing the Patriot League. "Set tone and tempo from the start. Fight through screens, set good picks, block out strong, get on the floor for loose balls."

Toughness can find expression in a combination of the mental and the physical. Watch Wisconsin play defense: The Badgers rarely reach or get gulled by a pump fake. Or it can be implanted like a benevolent microbe. North Carolina turned itself around eight games into the season when coach Matt Doherty decided to start a quarterback, Ronald Curry, and bring in a defensive end, Julius Peppers. Soon comparative softy Brendan Haywood was playing like a 7-foot, 265-pound monster back.

"Toughness is a skill," says Western Kentucky coach Dennis Felton, whose Sun Belt champion Hilltoppers rank right behind Michigan State, the national leader, in that statistical bellwether of stoutheartedness, rebounding margin. "You can't settle for rebounds that are going to fall your way. I talk about taking advantage of soft guys all the time."

Tough teams:

?Win on the road. At 28-2, Stanford didn't go unbeaten this season, 25 years after Indiana was the last team to do so (page 52). But the Cardinal did win all 11 of its road games, a figure that might be most indicative of who'll wear the crown in Minneapolis, site of the Final Four. Two of the past three national champions—Kentucky in 1998 and Connecticut in '99—ran up the same road record Stanford has en route to their titles. The Cardinal actually shot better (53.2% versus 50.9%) away from Maples Pavilion than in it. That success may be the result of confidence born of thorough preparation. Before his players walked into Pauley Pavilion and beat UCLA on March 3, Stanford coach Mike Montgomery told them, "Hay's in the barn, guys," referring to many weeks of 6 a.m. conditioning during the fall that no crowd noise or boastful banners could undo.

On the other hand, only three times since 1980 has an NCAA champion gone less than .500 in enemy arenas. That casts doubt on the chances of such teams as Arkansas (3-7 on the road), Georgia Tech (2-8) and Missouri (3-8).

?Don't get blown out. Only one team over the past quarter century—North Carolina in 1993—has suffered a loss by more than 25 points and gone on to win a title. This season that's bad news for such blowout victims as Cal, Iowa, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, UCLA, Wisconsin and, especially, Virginia, a loser by 42 points at Duke and 35 at Maryland. And by whupping the Tar Heels by 26 in Sunday's ACC Tournament final, the Blue Devils put their archrivals on historical notice. "We'll never wave the white flag," says Shane Battier of Duke, which had the ball with a chance to win at the end of three of its four losses this season and whose worst defeat was by 11 points to Maryland (in a game in which center Carlos Boozer suffered a fractured right foot). "We have too much pride. We know what it's like to look into the eyes of a surrendering team."

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