Saturday, April 02, 2005

Michigan State may have inside track on Tennessee

INDIANAPOLIS -- Michigan State has the inside edge. Maybe not on the court, but certainly in the scouting room.

Spartans coach Joanne P. McCallie has two assistants, Al Brown and Semeka Randall, who will provide insight into what coach Pat Summitt might do Sunday when Michigan State faces Tennessee in the second national semifinal game. Brown served as Summitt's assistant for seven seasons, while Randall played on Summitt's last national championship team in 1998.

Will it help?

``I think the mistake you make as a coach is thinking you know something just because you're a couple of years removed,'' Brown said Saturday. ``Unless you walk out of Tennessee's practice facility today and go to Michigan State, I think you still have a lot of work to do.''

Brown and Randall probably have more inside knowledge of Tennessee's program than anyone else in Indianapolis outside the Lady Vols' program, something that could help mightily when the Spartans play in their first women's Final Four.

Tennessee is more accustomed to the environment.

The Volunteers (30-4) have made the Final Four almost a personal showcase. They've reached the semifinals 16 times, played in 11 championship games and won six national titles. This also marks the fourth straight year Summitt has taken the Vols to the Final Four.

So expectations, as usual, are high.

``I think we won't get caught up in the experience,'' senior Shyra Ely said. ``We can focus on our goal, which is winning the national championship.''

Michigan State players insist they're not intimidated by Tennessee's reputation, success or its record-breaking coach. Summitt recently passed Dean Smith to top the NCAA career wins list.

All the Spartans (32-3) want to do is play their game.

But if they need any pointers, Brown and Randall will help.

``I'll tell them about the emotions you go through in the first five minutes,'' Randall said. ``You don't want to get those little fouls, you just have to settle down.''


It seems fitting LSU coach Pokey Chatman and Baylor's Kim Mulkey-Robertson would face each other in the Final Four because their careers have been so similar.

Both were high school stars in Louisiana. Chatman was a point guard at LSU, then became an assistant coach. Mulkey-Robertson grew up half an hour from the LSU campus but ended up at Louisiana Tech, where she also played guard and became an assistant coach.

``LSU was all I ever heard of growing up until I left to go to Louisiana Tech to play,'' Mulkey-Robertson said. ``I could sing their fight song for you.''

Everything was in place for Mulkey-Robertson to succeed Leon Barmore at Louisiana Tech, but she wanted a five-year contract and the school only offered four. So she left after 19 years at Tech to take the Baylor job in 2000.

But she still remembers her roots.

``Thirty-eight years of my life were spent in one state,'' Mulkey-Robertson said. ``I'll always be a Louisiana girl.''

And she'll always crave Louisiana food.

``The only thing about playing LSU that bothers me is they're going to go home and eat crawfish and I'm not,'' Mulkey-Robertson said.


Three of the Final Four coaches were point guards in college. The other, Summitt, had all the court sense of one, according to Texas A&M coach Gary Blair.

Mulkey-Robertson was an All-America point guard at Louisiana Tech, Chatman played the position for the Lady Tigers before joining the coaching staff and McCallie was a point guard at Northwestern. McCallie even scored 20 points as a senior against the Volunteers.

``I wish I was as good as they were,'' McCallie said with a laugh. ``They were really good. I coached against Pokey when I was at Auburn, so I'm well aware of how great she was. And Kim is a terrific person. She was just a pistol as a player.

``I think I shared the same attitude, I'll put it like that, maybe not the same talent.''

Blair said he's not surprised to see point guards become successful coaches because he sees it as a natural transition.

``Point guards are always going to make your best coaches because they have to be accountable for everybody else on their team,'' he said. ``They have to be an extension of ourselves as coaches.''

Summitt played at Tennessee-Martin and was on U.S. teams that competed in the world championships, Pan American Games and the Olympics. Blair was a high school coach in Dallas when he found himself in a pickup game against Summitt during a camp at North Texas in 1977.

``She was horsing around and kicked my butt from one end to the other,'' Blair said. ``Behind the back pass here, elbow here, elbow there. It humbled me real quick that women of that magnitude could play that well. Because I never played against somebody like that before.

``If she wasn't a point guard, she was a point guard up here, directing her team,'' Blair said, pointing to his head.

TOUGH TICKET: Two Tennessee players, Shyra Ely and Shanna Zolman, gave their toughest job this week to their parents -- paring down the ticket request list.

Ely, an Indianapolis native, and Zolman, from Syracuse, Ind., were both Ms. Basketball winners in high school, and as soon as Tennessee beat Rutgers 59-49 to reach the Final Four, everyone back home wanted tickets.

``It was like a wedding list,'' Ely said. ``Everyone was calling. The aunt of my ninth grade boyfriend even called wanting tickets.''

The NCAA allows each player to have six comp tickets. They can buy more from the school's allotment of 800, but the player or player's family must pay for them.

That didn't make it easy for the Indiana natives. In December 2002, Zolman's hometown fans came down on buses to watch Tennessee play Notre Dame at Conseco Fieldhouse and there could be a similar showing Sunday.

``I don't how many people are coming, but I'd be surprised if we didn't have a huge bus caravan again,'' Zolman said.

QUICK-HITTERS: The Spartans have beaten teams ranked Nos. 1, 2 and 3 when they played this season (Stanford, Ohio State and Notre Dame). ... LSU is 15-2 against NCAA tournament teams, including a 71-70 win over Baylor in December and a 68-58 win over Tennessee in February. The Tigers also lost 67-65 to the Volunteers on March 6. ... Five Baylor players have shot 50 percent or better from the floor in its first four tournament games. ... Ely had written ``Homeward Bound'' on her sneakers as motivation to reach the Final Four in Indianapolis. She said Saturday she hadn't decided what message she'd have on her shoes Sunday.

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