MINNEAPOLIS (AP)—In NCAA tournaments past, a matchup between the Big Ten and Pac-10 usually meant contrasting styles.
In the Big Ten, a pair of brass knuckles often would get you further than a silky smooth jumper.
In the Pac-10, freewheeling finesse was preferred to football on the hardwood.
But when second-seeded Michigan State plays 10th-seeded USC on Sunday in the second round of the Midwest Regional, don’t expect any floating and stinging from the Pac-10 tournament champions. These two teams are a lot closer than the 2,200 miles that separates the two campuses.
The Trojans have made a renewed commitment to defense and rebounding since Tim Floyd took over as coach four seasons ago. The former Iowa State coach has injected this Hollywood squad with some toughness from the heartland, and it has never been more evident than in USC’s six-game winning streak.
“We have determined defenders, like Tom (Izzo) does,” Floyd said of the Spartans coach. “I don’t know that they are as good as Tom’s. I’ve never seen five guys sustain a stance like they sustain a stance. Sincerely beautiful to watch, how hard they play.”
That’s nothing new for Michigan State.
The Spartans have made their name on the defensive end for decades, starting with Jud Heathcote, the dean of the old school. He passed the philosophy to Izzo, who continues to make defense and rebounding as much a part of Michigan State’s identity as green and white.
“Both teams play phenomenal defense,” USC forward Taj Gibson said. “Our coach stresses us to rebound the ball and, as you look at them, they are one of the top rebounding teams in the country.”
Michigan State leads the nation with a plus-10.3 rebounding margin, but doesn’t hesitate to get out and run, either. Speedy Kalin Lucas leads the break with Travis Walton and Raymar Morgan on the wings to get easy buckets off outlet passes from Goran Suton on the block.
Ditto the Trojans, who have five athletic starters who are 6-foot-5 or taller, and all of them love to attack the rim.
After slogging through the Big Ten season while dealing with Morgan’s walking pneumonia and Suton’s sore knees, the Spartans showed they are ready to roll with a dominant effort against 15th-seeded Robert Morris on Friday night.
Morgan converted an alley-oop pass to put Michigan State on the board just 4 seconds into the game, and the Spartans outrebounded the Colonials 49-28 and outscored them 44-20 in the paint.
“I think our teams are similar,” Izzo said. “They have been playing their best basketball the last four, five, six games, and I am not sure we’re there yet, to be very honest with you. But I think it’s exciting to think that maybe we could get there. And yet the unknown makes it a little bit difficult.”
Floyd has watched his young team’s confidence soar during their recent success—the school’s first Pac-10 tourney title and a win against seventh-seeded Boston College in the first round.
With Marcus Simmons shutting down another super-quick point guard in BC’s high-scoring Tyrese Rice, the Trojans limited the Eagles to just six field goals in the second half and held them to a season-low 32.7 percent shooting for the game.
After the 72-55 victory, USC forward Leonard Washington wore a gash under his eye like a badge of honor.
“I caught an elbow, it split me open,” Washington said. “Instead of getting stitches, I got it glued up.”
A remedy right out of the Heathcote’s medicine cabinet, no doubt.
It was the 14th time this season USC held an opponent to 60 points or less. The Spartans have done it 16 times, though they did it in the offensively challenged Big Ten.
“I do see a little similarity between the way we play,” Walton said. “I know they run opportunities when they can get them, and lately they have been playing pretty good defense and rebounding the ball really good. That’s been kind of their key to winning.
“We do the same thing, and that’s been our key, rebounding and defense.”
If one team holds an advantage, it would appear to be Michigan State with its depth. Izzo routinely plays 10 players and not one of them logged more than 25 minutes in the game against Robert Morris.
Floyd doesn’t have that luxury. Dwight Lewis, star freshman DeMar DeRozan and Daniel Hackett, who played all 120 minutes in the Pac-10 tourney, never sat down against BC. Gibson, who went 10-for-10 and scored 24 points, got only four minutes of rest.
“When it’s do-or-die and guys just want to win games, the fatigue doesn’t matter,” Gibson said. “You just want to go out there and play hard, because there’s always time to ice down and time for rest. But these memories last forever.”