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March 22, 2008
? MORE: Rivals.com NCAA Tourney Central
Two days after delivering the best performance of his life, Rhodes has a chance to eliminate the top seed in the South Regional when the eighth-seeded Bulldogs (23-10) face Memphis (34-1) on Sunday afternoon at Alltel Arena.
"It's going to be exciting," Rhodes said. "I'm already dreaming about it."
Rhodes lately has been a nightmare for opposing frontcourts. He has averaged 24 points and 9.4 rebounds per game over his past five contests, including a 34-point effort Friday in a 76-69 first-round victory over Oregon.
He has caught Memphis' attention with his actions ? and his words.
After Mississippi State lost 76-71 to Tennessee on Feb. 2, Rhodes correctly predicted the Volunteers would beat Memphis, which was undefeated at the time. The Tigers now are using his comment as a motivational ploy.
"It's like the Patriots," Memphis center Joey Dorsey said. "They just put another (thing) to make the opponent mad. ? We're just going out there to use it."
The NFL comparison is appropriate because this matchup could become as physical as a football game. Mississippi State features Rhodes and NCAA shot-blocking leader Jarvis Varnado in the paint. Memphis counters with the trio of Dorsey, Robert Dozier and Shawn Taggart.
All that brawn in the frontcourt has helped Mississippi State rank second and Memphis rank sixth in the nation in field-goal percentage defense. Opponents are shooting 36.7 percent against Mississippi State and 38.4 percent against Memphis.
"With Dorsey and Dozier, they're a real physical team," Varnado said. "We've just got to play physical back. We can't lay down for them."
The game also should feature a major contrast in styles. Memphis boasts so much depth that nine players average at least 13.9 minutes per game and nobody plays as much as 30 minutes per game. But each of Mississippi State's five starters played at least 32 minutes Friday, and four of them spent at least 37 minutes on the floor.
"They've got guys playing 37-38 minutes over the last five games, so we're going to try to run as much as we can,'' Dozier said. "We know they're going to try to slow it down as much as they can."
Even though Mississippi State isn't nearly as deep as Memphis, the first round shows why the Bulldogs have reason to believe they can pull off the upset. While Rhodes was carrying Mississippi State to victory Friday, Dorsey and Dozier occasionally struggled to contain UT Arlington's trio of Anthony Vereen, Jermaine Griffin and Larry Posey.
Dorsey noted that the game was officiated in such a manner that it prevented him from playing his type of game (the teams combined for 41 fouls). But he also admitted that the Tigers will have their hands full as they attempt to contain Rhodes.
Although nearly one-third of his career baskets have come on dunks, Rhodes - who is 6 feet 9 - improved his jump shot this season and developed into a much more complete player. Dorsey said Rhodes' ability to shoot from the outside makes him comparable to no player he's guarded this season other than Josh Heytvelt, the 6-11 forward from Gonzaga.
"He can step out to 15 feet and shoot the ball," Dorsey said. "It's going to be a tough matchup for me because I've never played anyone like this. I played against Heytvelt, but I think he's better than Heytvelt."
Rhodes has shot 60 percent overall in his past eight games and has scored at least 22 points six times during that stretch. He is playing each game knowing it could be his last.
"Every game I play, I've got to play my hardest," Rhodes said. "I can blink one time, and my season will be over. I can be in Starkville (with) my books."
Rhodes is in no hurry to start hitting the books again. He's too busy daydreaming about the possibility of an upset.
Haith was a Texas assistant on Rick Barnes' staff in 2003, when the Longhorns reached the Final Four. Twenty minutes before the tip-off of a national semifinal game with Syracuse, Barnes was sleeping.
"Then DeLoss Dodds, our athletic director, walks in, and all of a sudden he wakes up," Haith said. "The team walks in, he turns it on just like that with the guys in terms of getting ready."
Haith also talked about how Barnes frequently would call in the middle of the night to discuss upcoming games since neither coach slept much. Haith, who worked as an assistant at Texas for three seasons, has spent the past two days talking about the difficulty of coaching against someone who has influenced him so much.
"It's almost like your dad, (how) you're trying to please your dad," Haith said. "So I think it will be a little bit like that. But Rick likes to look at us as brothers."
Haith wasn't merely buttering up his opponent before a game. Barnes visited the National Collegiate Basketball Hall of Fame in Kansas City with his team last week and saw a section in which coaches discussed their mentors. The exhibit included a video of Haith talking about Barnes.
"He said some of the nicest things that anyone probably has ever said about me," Barnes said. "And the fact that it did come from him, it did touch me, it really did, because he's meant a lot to me."
Miami guard Jack McClinton said he had a fever in the days leading up to his 38-point performance Friday in a 78-64 victory over Saint Mary's, but the 6-foot-1 junior indicated that shouldn't be a problem for him Sunday.
"I'm on the meds," McClinton said. "I'm feeling real good right now."
While discussing McClinton's talents as a leader, Miami guard Lance Hurdle mentioned the motivational metaphors McClinton provides teammates.
McClinton refused to divulge any details.
"(That's) top-secret information,'' McClinton said. "I don't want any other teams using my metaphors to get pumped for a game."
Reserve forward Raymond Hicks offered at least a couple of hints about McClinton's motivational techniques. "He told us that we're all stars, so why can't we shine," Hicks said. "He tells us stuff like that, anything to get us going and just to get our minds right and to let us know we can play basketball and we ought to go out there and compete to the best of our abilities."
Texas guard Justin Mason wears the No. 24 jersey that former Longhorns guard Royal Ivey sported during his college career. Mason's style of play also reflects Ivey's willingness to do the dirty work.
Mason and Ivey have adopted such a similar approach to the game that Barnes indicated the team will start selecting which player will wear No. 24 each year. Barnes said he only wanted to give the number out to someone who plays the game in that same kind of team-first manner.
"They're going to have to bring that quality because it would not be fair (otherwise) to Justin and Royal," Barnes said. "The fact of the matter is ? we probably should have honored numbers at Texas. That should be an honored number with both Ivey and Mason on the back of it because of what they've done.
"They do the things that coaches just love players to do and beg players to do, but they just have a great innate ability to bring that. It's a talent. They do it as well as anybody."
Memphis guard Chris Douglas-Roberts' unorthodox style and ability to score in all kinds of ways might seem familiar to some older fans of the game. There's a reason for it. Douglas-Roberts says he has tried to pattern his game after Hall of Famer Earl "The Pearl" Monroe, who starred for the New York Knicks in the early 1970s.
"Earl the Pearl is my guy," Douglas-Roberts said. "I've seen how he used to play. I kind of tried to imitate him a little bit."
Memphis coach John Calipari also sees the parallels in the two players.
"I start to age myself when I say Earl 'The Pearl' Monroe, but that's who I would kind of compare his game a little bit to," Calipari said. "(It's) so old school. I hate to say that to Earl, but it is old school."
Mississippi State coach Rick Stansbury believes his team's experience in the Southeastern Conference might help if the Bulldogs can keep Sunday's game with Memphis close.
Mississippi State has played 10 games that were decided by six or fewer points. Memphis has had four such games.
"No one has played close enough to them to see how they play in a pressure situation," Stansbury said. "I think that's our challenge. Can we keep the game close enough that it becomes a close game in the last five minutes?
"There's no question we've been tested there a lot more than Memphis has. That doesn't mean it's bad from Memphis' standpoint. All it tells you is they've been so far ahead of people at the five-minute mark (that) they haven't been tested."
Calipari didn't have a problem with that argument.
"Probably he's right," he said. "That's the great thing. We've all got to play the game though. We'll see."
? STEVE MEGARGEE
The senior, Drew Neitzel, had a game-high 21 points, scoring eight in a two-minute stretch in the second half that kept the Spartans ahead. The freshman, Kalin Lucas, had 19, blowing past Pitt's guards repeatedly and finishing in acrobatic fashion.
That was the difference in No. 5-seed MSU's 65-54 victory over No. 4-seed Pitt. The Spartans will play in the South Regional semifinals on Friday in Houston, against the winner of today's game between No. 1 seed Memphis and No. 8 seed Mississippi State.
"This is it," said Neitzel, who hit 5 of 8 from 3-point range. "This is my last run so I don't want to have any regrets. I just want to go out and be aggressive and play the game the way I have my whole life."
Said Lucas: "My coaches tell me when I get the ball to push it, so that's what I did."
Michigan State reached its seventh Sweet Sixteen in 11 years under Tom Izzo. He described himself as "jacked" after the victory, which improves his record on the second day of an NCAA weekend to 12-2.
"The prep these guys did in two days was as good as any team I've been with," Izzo said, "and I'm very proud of them for that."
Izzo was most pleased by the mental toughness displayed by his players. That has come into questions at times this year, for an MSU team that finished fourth in the Big Ten despite being picked to win it.
"It's just satisfying for our team to get to Sweet Sixteen and to beat a team like Pittsburgh," Neitzel said. "There have been questions this year about the toughness of this team and how physical we can be. I think Pitt is one of the most physical teams in the country. We did a great job of matching their physical play. We stayed aggressive we didn't back down."
THE JUNKIE: Michigan State junior point guard Travis Walton is considered by Izzo as one of the hardest-working players he's ever had in the program. The light-scoring point guard is a defensive specialist, placing on the Big Ten's All-Defensive team the past two seasons.
There's no question, Izzo said, that Walton is the most film-obsessed player he's ever coached. The staff has had to tell Walton to go home on more than one occasion, shooing him after hours in the basketball complex of watching himself, the last game, his next defensive assignment, etc.
So Walton goes home and watches game film on his laptop.
On Thursday night, Walton stayed up late absorbing Pittsburgh footage. He wouldn't say how late.
Just when he was getting tired, his cell phone rang. It was former MSU great Mateen Cleaves, who typically calls and texts MSU players every March with words of encouragement.
"He was excited," Walton said of Cleaves. "He said, 'You watching film of Pittsburgh? ... You better get some film, you better tell the team we're ready to go get it.' That's Mateen right there."
Walton mostly watched film of Pittsburgh's Levance Fields. Although Fields scored 19 points, many of those came against MSU's Lucas. Walton kept Fields out of the lane, and Fields finished just 1 of 5 from 3-point range.
WAR GAMES: Tom Izzo gets at least one question every tournament about his rebounding "war drill," which earned fame in his 1999-2000 national title season when he had his players suit up in football pads to get more physical. It's a simple exercise: The entire team is split into two sides, Izzo throws the ball off the backboard, and the players brawl for the rebound. Losers run.
Pittsburgh has a similar drill, although it's a two-on-two exercise.
"We have called it 'war drill,'" Pitt coach Jamie Dixon said. "I was trying to get away from that physicality, that reputation. So I just called it the two-on-two blockout drill. But it's the same deal. It's a free-for-all."
In Pitt's version, you aren't excused until you get two rebounds in a row. On Saturday, the Spartans got the better of the Panthers on the boards.
FOUL TASTE: Pitt freshman center Dejuan Blair had this to say about the officiating: "I think the refs kept them in the game, I think they helped (Michigan State) out a lot. The media hyped it up, saying it was going to be a physical game, and that's how the refs called it."
For the game, MSU was whistled for 17 fouls, Pitt for 16. The Panthers had 19 free throws to the Spartans' nine, and MSU starters Drew Naymick and Raymar Morgan both picked up two quick fouls in the first half and had to sit. The Panthers were unhappy with a few calls in a row that went against them late, including a charge on Levance Fields that left him on the floor in pain for a few minutes.
? Joe Rexrode, Special to Yahoo! Sports
? MORE: Rivals.com NCAA Tourney Central
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.