Everyone in the Midwest regional has a great basketball team. Just ask the coaches.
Kansas' Larry Brown, whose 33-3 team is an overwhelming favorite to advance from here to the Final Four, makes Michigan State's non-Scott Skiles players sound like the Celtics. North Carolina State's Jim Valvano compares Iowa State's Jeff Grayer to David Thompson. The David Thompson? "Yes," Valvano said, "No. 44. The same number Grayer wears." Okay, coach.
Iowa State's Johnny Orr is just happy to be here with all these wonderful teams. And Michigan State's Jud Heathcote is unhappy that he has to hold an open practice, but delighted to be playing Kansas, "even if it is on their home floor."
Kemper Arena is, in fact, about 60 miles from Lawrence, Kan., but there will be plenty of Jayhawks fans here Friday for the semifinals of the Midwest regional. First, North Carolina State (20-12) will take on Iowa State (22-10). Then, Kansas will play Skiles -- uh, Michigan State (23-7).
Only Kansas -- No. 1 -- was seeded to be here. Michigan State upset Georgetown; Iowa State shocked Orr's old school, Michigan, and North Carolina State watched in delight while Arkansas-Little Rock embarrassed Notre Dame, then beat Arkansas-Little Rock ("I hate playing teams with hyphenated names," Valvano said) in double overtime, coming from five down in the first overtime to survive.
And so, in this now wide-open regional, logic says Kansas is a lock. But don't bet the ranch. North Carolina State may be getting on another "Valvano roll," the kind that led to the national championship in 1983. The Wolfpack won two games last weekend it probably should have lost.
"I don't worry about how we're playing at this time of year," Valvano said. "I just worry about if we're playing. If we play poorly for four more games and win them all, that's just great."
His team will probably not be able to play poorly and win against Iowa State. The Cyclones are smaller than the Wolfpack, but quicker. North Carolina State will walk the ball up court and try to punch it inside to 6-11 Chris Washburn and 6-10 Charles Shackleford. Iowa State, with no one bigger than 6-8 starting, will try to run, run, run.
"I like coaching small, quick teams," Orr said today. "Of course, I've never had a big team."
The key: rebounding. Both teams will play a lot of zone, and rebounding will dictate the pace. North Carolina State will win a 47-foot game, Iowa State a 94-foot one.
The second matchup is similar. Kansas has 7-1 Greg Dreiling and wondrous 6-11 Danny Mannning. It also has excellent shooters in Calvin Thompson and the hobbled (strained arch) Ron Kellogg. The Jayhawks are deeper and have a superb defensive guard in Cedric Hunter.
What does all that mean? "Skiles will get his points," Brown said. "We have to stop the other guys." What Brown didn't mention is that Skiles sets up teammates. He passes, he dishes, he runs the break and he sees people who come open when he is double-teamed.
The key: Skiles. If he dictates the tempo, Michigan State has a chance. If Kansas gets a walk-it-up game and works inside, forget it.