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THE SUFFERING SPARTANS
Before the season started, the UNLV-Michigan State game promised to be one of the best matchups of the year, a game that deserved its regal setting in The Palace of Auburn Hills, Mich. But last Saturday the Rebels, in a 95-75 rout, made the Spartans look positively common.
Though being overrun by UNLV is no disgrace, Michigan State (3-3) has had other humbling moments this season. The Spartans, ranked No. 4 in the preseason, were upset by Nebraska and Bowling Green, and even in victory, Michigan State has looked bad. Two days before meeting UNLV, the Spartans had trailed Cincinnati by 18 before squeaking out a 65-63 win on Steve Smith's disputed last-second shot, which may or may not have beaten the final buzzer.
"Jud Thuds" have occurred with unusual frequency this season. That's the term used to describe Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote's habit of whacking himself on the head with his palm when he's frustrated during games. "We're still searching, looking for different combinations," Heathcote says. "Maybe, down the road, we'll be a better team."
The first step on that road will be to find a consistent offensive threat to take some of the burden off Smith, the All-America guard who had 23 points against UNLV. Though Smith has lived up to his billing with a 27.5 scoring average through last weekend, no other Spartan has had a 20-point game.
The Spartans sorely miss two players from last year's Big Ten championship squad—guard Kirk Manns, who loosened defenses with his outside shooting, and forward Ken Redfield, the defensive stopper. "We need tough play and some athletes," says assistant coach Stan Joplin. "Jud was saying Cincinnati might have played UNLV better because it has better athletes and stretches things out." Huh? A team that a few weeks ago was one of the favorites to reach the Final Four is now wondering if Cincinnati might be a better match for UNLV?
The Spartans' problems aside, it could be that no one can handle the Rebels. Michigan State took a brief 60-59 lead in the second half, but forward Larry Johnson, who burned the Spartans for 35 points and 14 rebounds, helped UNLV respond with a 21-6 run that put the Rebels in front 80-66.
Michigan State has a chance to regroup because seven of its next eight games will be played at home in the Breslin Center. The Spartans have played there only once this season. But their biggest relief may have come with the Rebels' departure. As Spartan guard Mark Montgomery put it, "I don't think we'll face anyone quite like them again."
When Texas-El Paso coach Don (the Bear) Haskins was forced to sit in the stands for most of last season's games because of chronic laryngitis, he discovered that a seat on the bench is overrated. He may now feel the same way about practices, especially after the Miners' 71-60 upset of Georgetown on the Hoyas' home floor last Saturday.