Will Experience Count For Kentucky?

Posted: March 21, 1999

ST. LOUIS — In examining Kentucky's most recent history in the Final Four of the NCAA basketball tournament, one has to look no further than on the court to Wayne Turner and Scott Padgett, who have played in the last two national championship games.

In examining Michigan State's most recent Final Four history, one has to look in the seats, where Magic Johnson is sitting and watching his alma mater 20 years after leading it to the national title.

So when the top-seeded Spartans and third-seeded Kentucky meet today at the Trans World Dome for the Final Four berth that goes to the winner of the Midwest Regional, the key will be the Kentucky players' experience in the pressure cooker that is the tournament.

Or will it?

``It could be an advantage if we let it,'' Spartans guard Charlie Bell said yesterday. ``We're not playing against the names on their jerseys. We're playing against the people in those jerseys. Of course, they walk around like they're the top dog. They've won a national championship, and we haven't. But to be the best, we have to beat the best, and that's what we want to do.''

One year after losing to North Carolina in the regional semifinals, the Spartans (32-4) got one step further Friday night, scoring a 54-46 victory over Oklahoma, their 21st consecutive win.

Kentucky (28-8), meanwhile, advanced with a 58-43 triumph over Miami of Ohio behind a 17-point effort by Padgett. It was the Wildcats' sixth straight victory - all have come in domed stadiums - and it kept them on course to become the first team since Duke (1990 and '91) to win back-to-back NCAA titles.

Kentucky coach Tubby Smith conceded that having gone through this kind of thing before helps his team as far as dealing with extra attention is concerned. But that, he said, is about as far as it goes.

``Michigan State has had success in the last few years, and [coach] Tom Izzo has done a great job with them,'' Smith said. ``Our experience isn't going to put any more points on the board for us. This year is what counts.''

Kentucky, though, is a two-point favorite to advance to the Final Four for the fourth straight time. This despite the fact that Michigan State is a top seed and won the regular-season and tournament championships in the Big Ten, arguably the best conference in the country this season.

Smith didn't want to talk about favorites, but he did say that the Wildcats pointed to March all season. In fact, they were so focused on March, they went 3-4 in February, leading to speculation that they weren't a team that could go deep into the NCAAs.

``That's the way we want to build the season - to a crescendo,'' Smith said. ``We want to be playing to our maximum potential at this time of year. We don't want to peak in December or January. We want to play our best basketball with everything on the line.''

Michigan State defeated Mount St. Mary's by 23 points in the first round, but since then, its victories have been less than impressive. Against Mississippi in the second round, the Spartans had to break open a close game in the final five minutes in order to emerge with a 74-66 win. They shot only 40 percent in their victory over Oklahoma.

While Michigan State's style may be several notches below breathtaking, Izzo offers no apologies.

``We've been called so many things all year, it doesn't bother me anymore,'' he said yesterday. ``We're not shooting the ball as well as I'd like, but we shoot the ball as well as Kentucky. We remember what we have to do to win the game, and that's what we've done.''

The Spartans have shot 47.7 percent from the field for the season, the Wildcats 47.9 percent.

The teams are similar in a number of ways. Both like to bang, although Michigan State is probably the more physical team. Both like to run, although Kentucky is probably the quicker team. Both have marvelous depth, with the Spartans generally rotating nine players, the Wildcats 10. And each has a point guard who could be its ticket to St. Petersburg, Michigan State in Mateen Cleaves, Kentucky in Turner.

Cleaves, a 6-foot-2 junior, has been struggling. He is coming off a 3-for-14 performance against Oklahoma. For the tournament, he has made just 13 of 36 shots (36.1 percent) in three games while scoring 35 points to go with 17 assists and 13 turnovers.

Though not as much of a scoring threat as Cleaves, the 6-2 Turner, a senior, has shot 15 for 24 shooting (62.5 percent) and collected 40 points and, 16 assists while committing only five turnovers.

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