April 3, 2009

DETROIT (AP) -- The war drill is all fun and games when practice starts. The veterans can push the freshmen around a little bit, show them what's what and how things are done at Michigan State.

By January or February, though, it's downright ugly. Guys unhappy with their playing time use it to take out their frustrations, and no grudge or annoyance goes unsettled. There's so much pushing, shoving and hitting that Goran Suton has lost count of how many bloody noses he's gotten.

"It ain't as fun," Travis Walton said, "but you know what it's for."

Yeah, like Saturday night's game against top-seeded Connecticut, with the winner getting to play for another national title.

The Huskies (31-4) are one of the brawniest, scariest teams in the country, with more than a few guys who look as if they took a wrong turn on their way off the football field. Defense has always been a trademark of Jim Calhoun's teams, but it was more like self-preservation this year just so the Huskies could survive all that banging and pounding in the Big East.

Their 7.8 blocks per game are best in the country and probably would put them up there with some volleyball teams. They're averaging 43.3 rebounds a game, and their plus-9.2 margin is third-best in the country. They're holding opponents to 37.6 percent shooting, No. 4 in the country.

Hasheem Thabeet is a one-man swat team. He's got 150 blocks this year, six shy of Emeka Okafor's UConn record, averages 10.9 boards a game and was named Big East defensive player of the year for a second straight year as well as the co-player of the year. Not bad, considering the Big East was the who's who of college basketball this year.

But the Spartans (30-6) can get down and dirty with the best of them. After all, they play in the Big Ten, where games are often mistaken for football scrimmages.

Or tractor pulls.

Fitting, then that the first game in the NCAA tournament between these two is at Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions.

"UConn is a physical team and they're aggressive," said Walton, the Big Ten's defensive player of the year. "But the same rep they've got, we've got. Not only us but our conference. ... We work hard. We're going to the gym, doing the same things they do."

Actually, maybe even more. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is a football fan -- former San Francisco coach Steve Mariucci is one of his best friends -- and when he didn't think his players were going hard enough a few years back, he actually borrowed helmets and shoulder pads from the football team and had his players go at it.

The Spartans are allowing just 58 points over their last 15 games -- and that's including the 82 Ohio State hung on them in a loss in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament. Only eight opponents have scored more than 70, and the Spartans had a three-game stretch where they held the other team below 45.

They're averaging 38.8 rebounds per game and 6.6 steals. Oh, and remember how UConn's rebounding margin was No. 3 in the country? The Spartans are first, at plus-9.6.

Louisville came into the tournament as the overall No. 1 seed after rolling through the Big East tournament, yet Michigan State made the Cardinals look almost silly. Louisville could never get in sync offensively, and the Spartans almost seemed to have an extra guy or two on the floor for as much as they hounded the Cardinals.

"We have tremendous respect for Michigan State," UConn forward Jeff Adrien said. "To beat Louisville, a team from the Big East Conference, shows a lot."

Of course, Louisville didn't have Thabeet.

Thabeet might not be as skilled offensively as he is defensively, but at 7-foot-3, he can do plenty of damage.

"The bottom line is, if he gets it behind you, he's dunking it. That's a given," Izzo said. "So that's the first thing we can't let him do. If he gets it in front of you, he does have some post moves and it's not like he's a stiff in there, but it gives you a 50-50 chance. The other way it's a 100.

"But in saying all that, there's some things you can do against that, too. I think he gets up and down the court decent, but we plan on running. We plan on running, trying to wear him down that way."

That's a good plan -- except the Huskies weren't picked as the No. 1 team in the country for four weeks this season because one guy can score. A.J. Price is averaging 20 points in the tournament, and 19.3 since Jerome Dyson got hurt. Adrien is usually good for a double-double, and Stanley Robinson can give UConn points, rebounds, assists, even a block or two.

Pushing the pace also would help the Spartans offensively, not giving Thabeet time to park himself under the basket. Or, better yet, forcing him into spots where he draws a foul.

If that doesn't work, the Spartans will just have to play it rough. And UConn, no doubt, will give it right back.

"It's going to be a football game out there," Walton said. "With no pads."