Indiana State flies with the Bird. Michigan State offers its Magic act. Penn has poise and a prayer. De Paul provides the coach.
No one will accuse the final four of this year's NCAA basketball tournament of being the best teams ever assembled, but all the elements needed for an exciting, unpredictable event are there, in Salt Lake City, for Saturday and Monday action.
Indiana State is favored by 3 1/2 points over De Paul while Michigan State is 9 1/2 over Penn in the semifinals. Should the favorites reach the title game, Michigan State would rule a four-to-five-point pick.
The Spartans are the best team. The Big Ten representatives won what should have been the game for the national championship last Saturday when they manhandled Notre Dame, 80-68, in the final of the Mideast Regional. Earvin (Magic) Johnson and Slam Man Greg Kelser are beautiful to behold, a beautiful pair when it comes to force-feeding above the rim.
Michigan State is vulnerable, however, if it can be forced to come out of its excellent 2-3 zone defense and match up man to man. Thus the opening minutes of its games this weekend will be particularly significant.
If Penn could start hot and build, say, a six-point lead in the first five or six minutes, would the Ivy League champions then go into a delay -- before the national television audience -- in an attempt to take the Spartans out of their zone?
This would be a sound move tactically, although very dangerous in terms of the public's response. It is Penn's only chance. The Quakers are strong at forward, with the brilliant Tony Price and Tim Smith, but they are only adequate at the guards and weak at center.
De Paul would be even more dangerous, man to man, against Michigan State if the Demons could gain the early lead and try to dictate the game's tempo. De Paul is superquick, but weak under the basket. It would be up to Ray Meyer, the 65-year-old coach, to maximize his team's quickness. Meyer could make it close, given a little luck in the early going.
This presupposes that De Paul will gain the final.I'm not saying it will, although it is the only team to bet on Saturday, getting the 3 1/2. Indiana State probably deserves the role of a slight favorite, but I can't imagine the Sycamores blowing a quality club off the court.
I believe Meyer will concentrate on stopping the No. 2, 3, and 4 scorers for Indiana State, realizing that Bird is going to get his 30 points or more no matter what De Paul does. Indiana State beat Arkansas, for example, because the Razorbacks failed to block out under the board after Bird shot and missed. This was as important in their defeat as Bird's scoring.
The ideal matchup, for betting purposes, would have Michigan State playing Indiana State in the championship. Indiana State would not be a threat to slow the tempo against Michigan State and its zone. The Sycamores would try to run and gun, no matter what the score and this would play into the Spartans' hands.
Indiana State is not equipped to attack the middle of the Michigan State zone. The Sycamores would wind up shooting from the perimeter, just as Notre Dame did, and they would be even easier for Michigan State to penetrate against than Notre Dame was.
Take a good look this weekend at Johnson threading the needle with his high lob passes to Kelser. I don't know that there has ever been a combination this good in the college ranks.
Notre Dame did an excellent job in trying to defense them, and the 6-foot-7 Kelser amassed 34 points. Then Magic took over, controlling the clock over the final eight minutes with his superb ball-handling and driving abilities.
What this tournament should prove, once and for all -- in addition to Michigan State's superiority -- is that a top college team does not have to be deep in talent in order to be formidable throughout a season. De Paul plays five men, Michigan State six and Indiana State seven -- and they are as strong at the finish as they are at the start.