- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 4, 2000


They ask you to believe in fairy tales at the Final Four.

The one coach was 27-32 in his first two seasons and, for all his genius, did not start to win until he lured a ridiculous amount of high-profile basketball talent to an institution with a ridiculous amount of football tradition.

The other coach led his team to the NIT in his first two seasons and, for all his genius, would not have been on college basketball's largest stage last night at the RCA Dome if his two leading players had not spurned the riches of the NBA last spring.

You can spin the elements that mark Michigan State and Florida anyway you want. The NCAA prefers you to embrace their spin. They have a dream. Here's a hanky. Wipe the tear.

"I've always told our players that I hope they do dream it," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo says.

The dream, at least for most players, usually involves the NBA. But then, the story goes, Mateen Cleaves is not most players. His dream is the same as Izzo's.

"If there's ever a guy who had a true dream, it's Mateen," Izzo says, meaning the national championship.

Cleaves covets the true dream when he is not being accused of stealing a 40-ounce bottle of beer from a convenience store in East Lansing, Mich., as was the case last April.

A true dream apparently can lead to a true thirst.

Cleaves and Morris Peterson elected to return to Michigan State because of the dream, true or otherwise.

Not all dreams age well. The Minnesota Gophers peddled their dream at the Final Four in 1997. The superlatives followed the superlatives, as is the practice at these functions. Great coach. Great players. Great school. Three years later, with the coach gone and the players exposed, the university remains embarrassed.

Billy Donovan, Florida's 34-year-old coach, saw his IQ jump appreciably after he landed four McDonald's All-Americans the last two years. How did he do it? How did his vision become theirs? Couldn't they do the division? Ten players do not divide into 200 minutes very easily.

"He [Donovan] stays on the road, beats the bushes and does all the things that are necessary to be successful," Izzo says.

But all coaches stay on the road, and they just don't beat the bushes. They look under the bushes, too. They even look under the bushes in Madagascar, if necessary. The quest to find the new flavor of the moment is the principal game. The three R's of the college game are recruit, recruit and recruit.

You don't think Mike Miller hit that leaning, game-winning shot against Butler in the first round because of a brilliant piece of strategy devised by Donovan?

If so, then you must know the Gators fight song by heart.

College coaches are in the retail business. They sell themselves. Some even sell their souls to secure the two-legged merchandise so essential to their well-being.

What distinguishes one retailer from another is sometimes murky, left to the well-heeled supporters of a program. Even John Wooden, the living saint of college basketball, was empowered by a sugar daddy in his program.

Donovan has raised suspicions among the competition. The whispers beg a rejoinder. Doesn't nearly everyone buy the tallest, fastest and quickest? They make movies about it, don't they?

"Part of my decision to come to Florida was I wanted to play in the Final Four, coach in the Final Four and play in the NBA," Florida guard Teddy Dupay says. "What better person is there to show me those things than coach Donovan? He's done all those things."

That is true enough, if that is as far as it goes. Unfortunately, major college athletics has taught you to be skeptical.

Years after the fact, an ex-Indiana player says coach Bob Knight once punched Steve Alford in the gut. The ex-Indiana player also says he cast his lot with Knight because, unlike other schools, no money was offered and no rules were broken in his recruitment. Curiously, despite leveling a serious charge against Knight, he doesn't name the schools that offered him money.

He could be dreaming, too.

Cheers to the new national champion.

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