ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- Michigan State may be the surprise team of the Big Ten and the second-seeded Duke Blue Devils may be a perennial Final Four participant, but Spartans coach Jud Heathcote isn't ready to concede anything as his team heads into the second round of the NCAA tournament.
"We came from the Big Ten, and in our minds, we've played clubs that are every bit as good as Duke," he said. "It's not a question of survival. We're trying to move on."
History says they won't. The Blue Devils have been surprisingly consistent in early rounds of the tournament -- moving into the Final Four seven of the past nine years. They will be heavily favored when they take the floor today in the first of two second-round games at the ThunderDome.
"Tournament experience is very important," Heathcote said, "but are fortunate to have a number of players who have been in the NCAA tournament. We're happy to go in with a win behind us. I know that's a little redundant, since we wouldn't be here if we hadn't won the first game. But I think we were a little nervous in [Friday's] game."
Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski seemed a little nervous after Michigan State had a surprisingly easy time with Seton Hall on Friday night. His team had just bounced back from a tough loss in the ACC tournament to deliver a polished performance against Tennessee State earlier in the evening, but he was impressed with the way the Spartans recovered from an early deficit and bullied Seton Hall in the second half.
"They play hard together," he said. "They don't extend their defense that much, so there is less chance of error. They are very well-coached. I hate to say that about Jud's team, but the fact is, he does know how to coach. He does that pretty well."
Krzyzewski was saying all the right things. He was building up the competition -- for the benefit of the press and for his players -- but the Blue Devils should be able to handle Michigan State and move into the Sweet 16 against the winner of the early game between Kentucky and Marquette.
"We're excited," he said. "We're healthy this year. I really think we've had a better year this year [than 1992-93]. After we clinched the ACC, I think we didn't go after it for a week or a week and a half. Now, we're going after it."
The Blue Devils will have to find a way to neutralize Spartans scoring leader Shawn Respert and slow Michigan State's impressive transition game. The Spartans have to deal with All-American Grant Hill and a supporting cast that seems to step up whenever the opposition clamps down on him.
The first game of today's program also presents an intriguing matchup. Kentucky coach Rick Pitino's full-court pressure defense figures to frazzle the Warriors of Marquette, but the Wildcats could have trouble with Marquette's inside game.
If wide-bodied forward Damon Key and 7-foot-1 center Jim McIlvaine can control the key, the Wildcats may have to depend heavily on their outside shooting to move into the round of 16.
"We have our work cut out for us," Pitino said. "Marquette is balanced. They have a lot of experience in their junior and senior class. I think that's essential. We'll have to take them out of their game, doing what they do best, in order to beat them."
There is the perception that Kentucky lives and dies with the three-point shot anyway, but Pitino pushed the game inside against Tennessee State in the first round.
"Our three-point shooting is a myth," he said yesterday. "What I mean by that is we don't have all the components like we did last year to have a great three-point system. We shoot about 48 percent from the field. Take away our threes, and we shoot about 55 percent. We really shoot a lot of layups due to our pressure defense.
"It's a myth that benefits us. This year, we've won with defense. We're a young club, and we play very well defensively."
at St. Petersburg, Fla.
3. Kentucky (27-6) vs. 6. Marquette (23-8), 2:30 p.m.
L 2. Duke (24-5) vs. 7. Michigan State (20-11), 5 p.m. approx.
Kentucky-Marquette: The Wildcats clearly have superior talent, but they could have some trouble handling Marquette's bulky inside game. The Warriors can do a lot of damage with 6-foot-8, 245-pound F Damon Key and 7-1 C Jim McIlvaine. Kentucky coach Rick Pitino has gotten a lot of mileage out of the three-point basket this year, but abandoned that strategy against Tennessee State. Look for the Wildcats to try to re-establish their long-range shooting and finesse Marquette in the paint.
Duke-Michigan State: The Blue Devils used a balanced attack to score an 82-70 victory over Texas Southern on Friday, but look for All-American Grant Hill to assume more of the scoring responsibility. Texas Southern keyed on him and allowed Chris Collins and Antonio Lang to take up the slack, but the more talented Spartans don't figure to double- and triple-team Hill the way the Tigers did. If Michigan State can get another big game from G Shawn Respert and G Eric Snow can step up the way he did in the first round, it could be a very interesting matchup.