Just two weeks ago, the Michigan State Spartans hardly looked like a team capable of challenging for a Big Ten title, let alone a berth in the Final Four, as many pundits had expected.
Battered and beaten by a brutal non-conference schedule (Kansas, Duke, Oklahoma, Kentucky, UCLA and Syracuse), they were 5-7.
That's when coach Tom Izzo implored his players to regain "ownership" in the trademarks of the program, rebounding and defending. To reinforce his message, he turned to former players.
"Antonio Smith, Mateen (Cleaves), Eric Snow and Earvin (Johnson) talked to them _ I had conference calls _ about what it took," Izzo said. "I think we were trying to get back to old school a little bit."
Two weeks later, the Spartans have reeled off convincing wins against Penn State, Michigan and Northwestern and are looking more and more like the Spartans of old entering Sunday's game at No. 23-ranked Purdue.
"I think they have a little different spirit now," Penn State coach Eddie DeChellis said. "They were really lively, especially on the defensive end."
Said Izzo: "I think we're starting to regain a little bit of the confidence and maybe our players are buying in. Look at the Super Bowl (matchups); defenses will get you there. That's what got us there and we've got to get back to that."
"He understands how hard you have to work, how often you have to do it and the background of being from a small town (Latta, S.C.) sometimes makes guys work harder because they don't see all the glitz all the time."
_ ROY WILLIAMS
North Carolina coach on sophomore point guard Raymond Felton.
Winston Davis / Got a Minute?
Former Tampa Prep star Winston Davis, now a senior guard at Lafayette College and the team's second-leading scorer, took a minute to chat with Times staff writer Brian Landman about his old high school teammates, his final collegiate season, and his other passion, the drums.
BL: You think some folks probably have forgotten that you were an honorable mention McDonald's All-America at Tampa Prep?
WD: My situation in high school was fun. Even though Casey (Sanders) got a lot of pub, a lot of it was deserved. High school was a good experience. But my talent has been coming out up here.
BL: You must be encouraged about the way you and the Leopards are doing in the Patriot League?
WD: It's been a pretty good go so far. As a senior, I just want to maximize this time. I know how important it is; it's my last go-around.
BL: An NCAA Tournament berth, which would be the team's first since 2000, would be a nice way to go out, right?
WD: Oh yeah. That's what everybody sets out to do at the beginning of the year. By the end of the year, we want to be able to compete with whoever we need to compete with to keep our season going as long as we possibly. We want to make as much noise as we can (in March).
BL: Let's see. Sanders won an NCAA championship ring at Duke and another former Tampa Prep teammate, Andrew Kouwe, won one at Syracuse last year. Are you next?
WD: It seems like wherever we go, championships go. Hopefully, I can bring one here. At least a Patriot League championship.
BL: This spring is an important time across the board; you are set to graduate with a major in anthropology and sociology, right?
WD: And business economics.
BL: That's a plateful.
WD: It has been five years.
BL: With all of that and basketball, do you still have the chance to play the drums?
WD: I played a few times as a guest drummer at Shiloh Baptist down the street from the college, but I haven't had the time to maintain playing all the time. I can still play. I'm still a musician.
Pittsburgh at Syracuse. 8 p.m. today. ESPN2. Call it the "Rebound Bowl," Big East style. The Panthers are no longer undefeated after losing Monday at UConn, 68-65, while the defending national champion Orangemen just had their 13-game winning streak snapped Tuesday against Seton Hall.
Off the rim
Arizona coach Lute Olson might be a fabulous boss and generous mentor, but his former assistants will tell you he teaches hard lessons as an opponent. Four former Olson assistants have gone against him and they are a combined 1-8.
"It's always fun to see Coach, but I'd rather see him for dinner during the summer than go compete against one of his teams," said Oregon State coach Jay John, who was on Olson's staff for four years (1998-2002).
His Beavers lost to Olson's No. 14 ranked Wildcats 109-75 on Thursday; he's now 0-3 against Olson.
"I think the former assistants and myself would probably prefer not to play," Olson said.
Here's Olson's complete record against his old assistants:
EX-ASST TEAM MEETING RESULT
Dick Kuchen+ California Feb. 2, 1984 Arizona, 56-50
Kuchen California March 3, 1984 Cal, 70-62
Kuchen California Jan. 10, 1985 Arizona, 69-67
Kuchen California Feb. 9, 1985 Arizona, 66-48
Kevin O'Neill Marquette Jan. 8, 1994 Arizona, 94-80
Jay John Oregon State Jan. 4, 2003 Arizona, 80-65
John Oregon State Feb. 9, 2003 Arizona, 72-60
Jessie Evans La-Lafayette Dec. 30, 2003 Arizona, 72-69
John Oregon State Jan. 22, 2004 Arizona, 109-75
+ On Olson's staff at Iowa.
_ Compiled by Brian Landman