-- Given the grave state of global events, Michigan State Tom Izzo concedes that the term "war drill" is unfortunate. But he makes no apologies for the no-holds-barred practice technique that he credits with transforming the Spartans into the most feared rebounding team in college basketball.
The fury with which Michigan State has attacked the boards goes a long way toward explaining how Izzo's band of overachievers has managed to advance to the NCAA tournament's round of eight for the fourth time in five years despite their erratic regular season and humble seventh seed in the NCAA tournament's South Region.
And if they're to keep their run of upsets alive, the Spartans likely will need every second-chance point they can muster when they take on No. 1 seed Texas at the Alamodome on Sunday for the right to advance to the Final Four.
With each game Texas has played in the tournament, the quickness and savvy of point guard T.J. Ford has been the focus. But Sunday's South Region final will be about brawn and toughness -- contested under the rim, where the game's big men collide.
Izzo manufactures these bruising collisions during practice in his so-called "war drill," in which he positions five players under the basket and five along the perimeter, clangs a ball off the rim to simulate a wayward shot, and orders a free-for-all to get it. The scrum is then charted and scored, with defensive rebounds worth one point; offensive rebounds worth two.
It was bewildering stuff for freshman Erazem Lorbek, who arrived at East Lansing from Slovenia knowing little about American college basketball except that Michael Jordan had played for North Carolina.
"It looked like a lot of hits, a lot of elbows," Lorbek said. "It looked like someone could get elbowed in the teeth."
To Izzo, rebounding is the truest gauge of players' effort. And in those off years when the Spartans have lacked a sure shooter, rebounding has helped them compensate for talent.
"You can really determine how much effort the team gives at the end of the night when you look at the rebounding stat," said senior forward Aloysius Anagonye, the team's top rebounder (5.3 per game). "You have to be mentally tough to rebound, and that's what we try to do in practice with the war drill."
It will be essential against Texas, which plays a similar, bruising game.
Anagonye will draw the job of covering the Longhorns' top rebounder, James Thomas, who is averaging 11.1 rebounds per game and did a superb job against Connecticut's Emeka Okafor on Friday night. Anagonye likens Thomas to the NBA's Ben Wallace. "A guy like that, you definitely have to respect when you come to play him. If you don't, you're going to get your head knocked off."
The respect is mutual between the teams.
Texas Coach Rick Barnes is so admiring of Izzo's defense that each season he shows his players a tape of Michigan State's victory over Iowa State in the 2000 NCAA regional final, in which the Spartans gutted out the 75-64 victory en route to the national title.
"I do it to show them the kind of effort and intensity you've got to play with to be national champions," Barnes said today. "It's unbelievable how hard fought that game was."
This year's Michigan State squad has fought just as hard to get this far.
The Spartans opened the season searching for a point guard after Marcus Taylor exited early for the NBA. Izzo muddled through, ultimately cobbling together a starter from the combined efforts of sophomores Chris Hill and Alan Anderson.
Then came a raft of injuries that scrambled the lineup further and stymied the team's cohesion. Still, Izzo refused to back off the more physical aspects of practice.
"Alan dislocated his finger catching a pass -- a compound dislocation," Izzo noted. "I think we'd be better off if we played the war drill for two hours and did the sissy stuff for 10 minutes."
Sunday at the Alamodome, the Spartans will face their most hostile crowd yet, with the Longhorns faithful expected to jam the cavernous venue to cheer on the emergence of Texas basketball.
Izzo's players are seasoned in this, too. Michigan State is one of the four teams to have beaten Kentucky this season (71-67) -- at Lexington, no less. That was before the Wildcats' defensive resurgence, of course, but the victory left the Spartans with a heightened sense of their own ability.
Then, in second-round play of the NCAA tournament, they stifled No. 2 seed Florida, 68-46, in Tampa.
"What better challenge for us than to play the number two team [Florida] in their backyard, and the number one team [Texas] in their backyard," asked Izzo, who predicted an "old-fashioned fistfight" Sunday. "If we survive, I guess we've done it the way you should do it."