ST. LOUIS, April 1 -- A crooked and distinct smirk quickly appeared on Drew Neitzel's face Friday when a reporter told the 19-year-old that few believe he can match up with North Carolina's Raymond Felton, one of the nation's top point guards.
The Michigan State freshman, after all, is a student of college basketball lore. An Arizona fan growing up, Neitzel was more than aware of how Wildcats' freshman Mike Bibby directed Arizona to the national championship in 1997.
North Carolina junior Raymond Felton has established himself as one of the best point guards in the country and could be a high draft pick if he opts for the NBA . . .
(Craig Jones -- Getty Images)
"That's been a big motivation to me . . . " Neitzel said. "I remember those championships well."
The point guard matchup is a compelling and critical subplot to tonight's national semifinal between North Carolina (31-4) and Michigan State (26-6) at the Edward Jones Dome. Both schools push the tempo as well as any team in the country, and the play of a heralded junior and a freshman will be key to their success.
Felton, North Carolina's only true ball-handler, is arguably the nation's fastest guard from end to end; the junior could be an NBA lottery pick should he choose to forgo his senior year of eligibility. Neitzel is a cherub-faced, 170-pound guard who reportedly was chided by opposing fans in high school for his childlike appearance.
"People underestimate me and haven't really respected me my whole life," Neitzel said. "When they look at me, I'm not really big. I use that as motivation just to prove people wrong. I don't get down and believe what people say."
Neitzel's father, Craig, helped Drew become an ambidextrous shooter, first teaching him to brush his teeth, then eat and then shoot with his left hand. Neitzel also made a habit of playing older competition.
In second grade, he played against sixth-graders in YMCA ball. In seventh grade, he attended Five-Star Camp in Pennsylvania, even though it usually was open only to ninth-graders. At one Five-Star session four or five summers ago, Neitzel first watched Felton, a dynamic floor leader who has grown into the player who stewards the nation's highest-scoring team.
Felton has improved his three-point shooting from 34 percent his first two college seasons to 43.2 percent this year. North Carolina Coach Roy Williams called Felton an indispensable player.
Felton sat out North Carolina's season-opening game against Santa Clara on Nov. 19 because he was suspended one game for playing in an unsanctioned summer league game. The Tar Heels lost, 77-66.
In the Syracuse Region semifinal against Villanova, the Wildcats rallied from an eight-point deficit and nearly tied the score once Felton had fouled out in the final minutes, finishing with 11 points, 11 rebounds and 5 assists. And Felton sat the final minutes of the first half in the region final against Wisconsin, when the Badgers went on a run to tie the score at halftime.
Michigan State assistant Doug Wojcik helped recruit Felton while working on then-coach Matt Doherty's staff at North Carolina. Wojcik said Felton is North Carolina's only fully capable ball-handler, making his presence a necessity for Carolina.
"When he is out of the game, there is a big difference in their team," Wojcik said. "Melvin [Scott] is a great shooter, but he has never been a true point guard."
Michigan State, on the other hand, has a handful of ball-handlers, including senior reserves Chris Hill and Kelvin Torbert. Spartans Coach Tom Izzo moved Neitzel into the starting lineup 14 games ago largely because he wanted to take pressure off Hill, who had been shooting poorly.
Neitzel has played a little less than half of the games in recent weeks, though he has played well. In four NCAA tournament games, Neitzel has made 53 percent of his shots and has 14 assists and eight turnovers. "He's the truest of point guards that we have, no question about it," Izzo said.
Neitzel has an unassuming appearance that resembles former Maryland point guard Steve Blake, who led the Terrapins to the 2002 national title. Neitzel readily accepts the comparison.
Although slight, Neitzel said he can bench press 225 pounds and the 6-foot guard insisted he dunked the ball during Friday's practice. More than anything, Neitzel thrives in the open court, pushing the ball and looking for teammates in transition.
"We've played a lot of athletic teams this year," Felton said, "but they are probably the first team we've faced that can run with us."
When Neitzel was asked if he had thought all night about facing Felton, a player whom Neitzel greatly respects, he nodded before opting for a diplomatic answer, saying, "It's more than a one-on-one battle, they have so many great players of NBA talent. It's going to take a total team effort to slow them down."
But clearly Neitzel is going to relish the opportunity to face the player he first watched in a summer camp years ago and who could be playing in the NBA next season. Neitzel said while he does not expect to be nervous, he will probably be so excited, "Coach will probably have to contain me from bouncing off the walls."