The 2000 Final Four was held in the heart of Big Ten Country, at Indianapolis, and two conference teams made it. Here’s a look back at the paths that Michigan State and Wisconsin, along with southern interlopers Florida and North Carolina, took to reach the 2000 Final Four.
Tom Izzo had led Michigan State back to the Final Four in 1999, their first appearance since the days of Magic Johnson. The ‘00 Spartans brought back all the key players of that ‘99 team. Mateen Cleaves averaged 12 points and dished out 7 assists per game. Charlie Bell was another 12ppg scorer in the backcourt. A tough frontline included Morris Peterson, who led the team in scoring with 17ppg. Andre Hutson and A.J. Granger combined for 20 points/11 rebounds a night.
Sparty was ranked #3 to start the year and went on to a 26-7 record that included a share of the Big Ten regular season title. They won the league tournament and that secured the #1 seed in the Midwest—a prize of particular importance to Michigan State, since the regionals would be held nearby at The Palace in Auburn Hills.
But the road through Cleveland on the first weekend wasn’t easy. The dispatching of 16-seed Valpo was easy enough, a 65-38 final. But Utah was the opponent in the Round of 32, and the Utes—who made the 1998 Final Four—took a 35-32 halftime lead. Cleaves stepped up with a 21-point game, while Hutson went for 19 points/8 rebounds in the eventual 73-61 win.
Another slow start came in the Sweet 16 against Syracuse. The Orange zone had Sparty off balance early and Michigan State trailed 34-24 at the half. But they got hot from behind the arc and shredded the zone in the second half. Peterson buried five treys, each starter scored in double figures and they pulled away to a 75-58 win.
In a bracket marked by upsets, the Midwest was where the chalk held. Syracuse had been the 4-seed, and now 2-seed Iowa State was on deck for the regional final. Neither team would shoot the ball very well, but Michigan State’s defense forced 19 turnovers. Hutson delivered 17 points/11 rebounds. Peterson went for 19/8 and secured the regional’s Most Outstanding Player honors. And the final score of 75-64 had to be seen as a good omen by Sparty old-timers—that was the same score by which Magic’s Spartans defeated Larry Bird’s Indiana State to win the 1979 Final Four.
Florida’s only Final Four appearance in a spotty program history had come in 1994. Billy Donovan took over the coaching reins in 1997 and by 1999, he had the Gators in the Sweet 16. A talented lineup included a couple future NBA players in Mike Miller and Udonis Haslem. Each would win a ring with LeBron James in Miami. Here in college, they combined for 26 points/12 rebounds per game in 2000.
Donnell Harvey was another physical presence, averaging 10/7. Kenny Weeks led a balanced backcourt with 10 more per night. Florida was ranked #8 to start the season and played steady basketball throughout. They were ranked in the top 16 all the way through and went 24-7. Although the Selection Committee thought a little less of the Gators than the pollsters did—Florida was given a 5-seed in the East Regional.
The relatively low seed nearly bit Donovan’s team right out of the chute in Winston-Salem. They played Butler and went to overtime—a precursor for another overtime epic these two schools would play in 2011. Miller stepped up with 16 points/13 rebounds and Florida escaped with a 69-68 win. They had an easier time with 4-seed Illinois. Miller went for 19/8, while guards Teddy Dupay and Brett Nelson knocked down 16 each in a 93-76 win.
The Carrier Dome in Syracuse was the venue for regionals weekend, and top-seeded Duke was waiting. This Blue Devil team had two future National Player of the Years—Shane Battier and Jay Williams playing key roles. And Carlos Boozer, with a long NBA career ahead of him, was at power forward.
But Florida forced Williams into a 1-for-9 shooting night and their own balanced attack led the way to an 87-78 win that was surprisingly easy. On the bottom half of the bracket, 2-seed Temple had lost early, so #3 Oklahoma State was the last roadblock to the Final Four.
In a sloppy game marked by a lot of turnovers each way, the Gators at least hit their shots. They hit 51 percent from the field and took a 12-point lead at the half. That margin stood up in a 77-65 final. Miller’s 14 led the balanced lineup and he was named Most Outstanding Player.
Even by the high standards of the North Carolina basketball program, the 1990s were boom times. After winning the NCAA title in 1993, they had gone on to make the Final Four for Dean Smith again in 1995 and 1997. Smith retired and was replaced by longtime assistant Bill Guthridge, but the beat went on with another Final Four trip in 1999.
The 2000 team had the usual collection of talent—Ed Cota ran the floor and averaged eight assists per game. Joseph Forte averaged 17 points/6 rebounds/3 assists as the two-guard. Brendan Haywood and Jason Capel were the producers up front, with per-game averages of 14/8 and 13/7 respectively.
But the record didn’t reflect the talent. North Carolina struggled to an 18-13 record and their inclusion in the NCAA field was controversial—particularly when they were taken over Virginia, who matched UNC in conference play and beat them twice head-to-head. Slotting UNC relatively high as an 8-seed in the South seemed like another Committee overreach.
There’s few teams more dangerous in March Madness than the talented underachiever that gets a shot at redemption and that proved to be the case with the Tar Heels. Haywood’s 28/15 night keyed an easy 84-70 win over Missouri in the first round. Top-seeded Stanford was next. Forte scored 17, Cota handed out ten assists and UNC’s defense forced the Cardinal into 35 percent shooting. The 60-53 upset let everyone know North Carolina wasn’t going to leave easily.
Fourth-seeded Tennessee awaited in Austin and behind 22 points from Forte, the Tar Heel run continued with a 74-69 win. Meanwhile, the bottom half of the bracket was a mess. Cincinnati and Ohio State, the 2 and 3 seeds respectively, went out on the first weekend. Instead, it was 7-seed Tulsa that reached the regional final.
Even allowing that the Golden Hurricane was coached by Bill Self, making his first big run as a head coach in March, this was too good to be true for Carolina. They controlled the boards, with a 35-26 edge. Forte went off for 28 points and he took home Most Outstanding Player honors. It was a good game, but UNC’s 59-55 win had them improbably back in the Final Four.
Since winning the national championship in 1941, Wisconsin basketball went into a prolonged drought. They’d only made four NCAA Tournaments since then and three had come between 1994-99. Dick Bennett brought the grinding pace and disciplined half-court offense that the Badgers have subsequently become known for to Madison.
A pair of forwards, Mark Vershaw and Andy Kowske were the leaders and they combined for 21 points/10 rebounds per game. Overall though, there was nothing about this Wisconsin team that really stood out as they went 18-13 and were seeded #8 in the West Regional.
Jerry Tarkanian’s Fresno State team was up first and Wisconsin trailed 34-30 at the half. But they turned up the defense and got help off the bench. Jon Bryant knocked down 21 points and Duany Duany scored 12 more, while Kowske went for 14/14. The final was 66-56.
Not only was Arizona the 1-seed, but these games were being played at Tucson. It made what happened next even more shocking. The Badger defense held the Wildcats to 39 percent shooting. Kowske had another double-double with a 10/12 line. Vershaw added 15. Maurice Linton was this game’s backcourt hero off the bench with 14 points in the 66-59 upset.
Albuquerque, site of one of college basketball’s great Cinderella stories at the 1983 Final Four, was the venue for the regionals. And Wisconsin’s own Cinderella journey continued against 4-seed LSU. Bryant scored 16 points and the stifling Badger defense held the Tigers to 14 points in the first half. The final was 61-48.
This was another region where the favorites on the bottom half–#2 St. John’s and #3 Oklahoma—hadn’t survived the first weekend. Sixth-seeded Purdue, desperately seeking the first Final Four for legendary head coach Gene Keady, was up next for an all-Big Ten regional final.
Once more, the Badgers found scoring off the bench. This time was it was Roy Boone and his 12 points. Kowske scored 14. And Bryant’s magical March continued with an 18-point game. He won regional MOP honors and the 64-60 win sent Wisconsin to an unlikely Final Four.
THE 2000 FINAL FOUR
Michigan State and Wisconsin were paired up in the first semifinal. The Badgers were able to muck it up and create their kind of pace, only trailing 19-17 at the half. But Sparty’s physicality was too much. Michigan State won rebounding 39-19 and got a 20/7 game from Peterson, along with 10/10 from Hutson. They seized control in the second half and won 53-41.
Florida’s defense was the story against North Carolina. The Gators forced the Tar Heel forwards, Haywood and Capel, into five turnovers each. Florida got some offensive help from Nelson, who came off the bench to score 13 and it was enough to win 71-59.
Just three months earlier, Michigan State and Florida had met on the football field, in a Citrus Bowl matchup on New Year’s Day. Now the basketball teams would meet for much higher stakes.
Haslem had a big game for the Gators, scoring 27, but he didn’t get enough help and Spartan balance was winning the day. Peterson scored 21, while Granger’s 19/9 helped Michigan State control the boards. Cleaves knocked down 18 and would win MOP honors at this Final Four. The 89-76 win put the Spartans back on top of the college basketball world.