DENVER (AP)—In their flurry of interviews Friday, the two coaches and six players from Pittsburgh and Michigan State combined to use the words “tough” and “toughness” 31 times. Next most popular were “physical” and “physicality,” which earned 25 mentions.
Oh, and “physical toughness.” Tom Izzo threw that in twice.
Suffice it to say the second-round matchup between two of the country’s more — need we say it?—physical teams probably won’t be real pretty Saturday.
Fourth-seeded Pitt against fifth-seeded Michigan State with a trip to the South Regional in Houston on the line. Get the ice packs and gauze ready.
“You don’t want to go underneath the boards not braced,” said Izzo, the Michigan State coach who recruits only men’s men to East Lansing. “I told my guys, low man is going to win. You better be ready to be banged around. I don’t think ‘slugfest’ is the right word. I just think they do a good job of using their bodies, and hopefully we do, too.”
Both teams come by their bruising reputations honestly.
Izzo installed the now-famous “war drill” into his practice regimen about a decade ago, tossing a ball toward the rim and telling the players to go get it and not worry about rules or split lips.
Pitt coach Jamie Dixon had the same drill in his repertoire, but renamed it a few years ago.
“I was trying to get away from that physicality, that reputation,” Dixon said. “So I just called it the ‘two-on-two blockout drill.’ We used to call it the ‘war drill.’ So I guess names can change everything.”
Ever since Pitt got good at the start of the decade behind the sturdy guard play of Brandin Knight, Julius Page and Jaron Brown, the Panthers have been known as grinders.
The equation changed a little this year, as injuries ravaged the roster, forcing Dixon to bring a walk-on onto the active squad to simply conduct a full-fledged practice. It took the idea of toughness to a different level, and it has paid off. Pitt won the Big East tournament and is on a six-game winning streak.
“It’s physicality and banging with people, not being afraid of contact,” Dixon said. “But it’s also just getting through adversity. I think in a lot of ways, that’s where we’ve shown our mental toughness more so than anything this year, with the things that have happened to our guys, and things that guys are playing through.”
The “engine” of the Pitt team, according to Spartans guard Travis Walton, is Levance Fields, who missed 12 games in the middle of the season with a fractured bone in his foot. Fields returned in time to spark Pitt’s streak, and in the first-round win over Oral Roberts, he had 23 points and seven assists to lead the Panthers.
Fields said all this talk of physicality shouldn’t mask a simple truth.
“We can play basketball,” he said. “People can say what they want. We try not to worry about that. We prefer to focus on what we need to do.”
Stopping Drew Neitzel would figure to be on the top of Pitt’s list, though even that doesn’t guarantee success. Neitzel had a bad game Thursday, going 2-for-11 for five points against Temple. But Michigan State won easily, and Neitzel refused to believe he’s in a slump.
“That game’s in the past,” he said. “I shot the ball great today in practice. I’m gonna let ‘em fly. You know, whether I’m hitting, whether they aren’t going in, I’m still gonna shoot ‘em.”
Neitzel gets more shots than anyone on his team because the Spartans run many of their half-court sets through the senior guard, who scored 14.2 points per game this season, but averaged 27 in two games at the Big Ten tournament.
About those half-court sets: Though both teams pride themselves on their ability to run and score in transition, they figure their opportunities will be limited in this game.
So it could come down to setting up, executing, getting tough—both physically and mentally.
Izzo expects Pitt to be every bit as tough as his squad.
“Some people talk it and don’t walk it. Some people walk it and don’t talk it,” Izzo said. “They’re more the walk and don’t talk, as far as I can see. I think those are the real tough teams.”
But don’t mistake all this talk of toughness and brute force as a sign that these players are one-dimensional.
While Walton watched film on Pitt and took phone calls from famous alums Mateen Cleaves and Antonio Smith after Thursday’s win, Panthers star Sam Young was engaging in a more refined pursuit.
“They have a piano at the hotel. I played a couple songs to brush up on my skills,” he said.
The Spartans razz the 6-foot-6, (conservatively listed) 215-pound forward at their own risk.