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February 22, 2000 - Image 9

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Publication:
The Michigan Daily, 2000-02-22

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The north poU __
,Whigan ranks fifth in the latest
USCHO hockey poll. Go online to see
'ow the rest of the top eight shakes out.
mwrhigandaily.com/Isports

sIe i )It V Daig

TUESDAY
FEBRUARY 22, 2000

9

Love-to-
hate rivalry
will decide
conferenCe
B Uma Subramanian
Daily Sports Writer
Three weeks ago Michigan State
hockey coach Ron Mason didn't think
his team had a chance to do what it has
done the past, two years -- win the
CCHA regular season crown,
Around Groundhog Day, things
ked bleak.
ason's Spartans were struggling to
win, having trouble finding the net and
felt pretty down about it.
All of a sudden, the Spartans have
begun heating up '- sooner than
Punxsutawney Phil had predicted for the
winter freeze to thaw.
"To tell you the truth, three weeks ago
we didn't think we had a shot," Mason
said. "We were struggling. We turned the
corner again two weeks ago against
#rthern (Michigan). That put us in a
ition now where we feel pretty good"
In the span of a couple of weeks, the
Spartans are once again contenders for
the coveted CCHA crown.
After the Wolverines tied Northern
Michigan twice last weekend, Michigan
State sits only two points out of first
place - making a repeat conference title
a reasonable goal.
"Things are pretty upbeat right now in
lockerroom because of where we are-
the league," Mason said. "We could
have finished fifth or sixth.
"Last year we ran away with the title,
but that's not a healthy situation to be in
coming down the stretch. A conference
race like this, where you are fighting for
every game, keeps your team sharp."
This year, the race is as close as ever.
Friday night, when the teams meet in
Ann Arbor, Michigan and Michigan
lte will play for all the marbles.
orthern Michigan coach Rick
Comley said the CCHA title chase has
become a two-team dash to the finish.
Michigan's lead is so fragile that a few
bad bounces could easily give the
Spartans the crown.
Granted, CCHA bragging rights could
serve as a huge motivator, but much
more than that hangs on the line.
The regular-season vanquisher is

Gaines has backcourt blues
Point guard needs help from Smith until Crawford's return

By Jacob Wheeler
Daily Sports Editor
No one was happier that Brandon
Smith sliced and diced his way to a
career-high 16 points Sunday than point
guard Kevin Gaines - the athletic fresh-
man whose reeled under pressure with-
out his backcourt mate Jamal Crawford.
"We think (Brandon) can do that
every night," Michigan coach Brian
Ellerbe said about his veteran swingman
who had his first breakout game this sea-
son. "Whenever he does that, it helps
takes the pressure off Kevin."
Gaines has suffered a virtual identity
crisis in the backcourt since Crawford
began his six-game suspension, handling
the ball and setting up the offense, but
then trying to pick up the exiled shooting
guard's scoring slack at the same time.
The point guard's stress reached a cli-
max at Wisconsin this past Wednesday,
as he walked out of the visitors locker-
room with the weight of the world on his
shoulders and a box of pizza teetering in
his shaky hands. Gaines showed no signs
of the vibrant personality which earned
him the nickname "go-go."
Gaines was confronted by a handful of
reporters who drilled him about the
Wolverines' seventh-consecutive loss,
and about his added responsibilities of
handling the basketball all alone -

since his backcourt teammate Jamal
Crawford was watching the game on
television back in Ann Arbor.
Michigan's current floor leader used
to think he could handle the media, the
point guard duties and the pizza in his
nervous hands. But a freshman in the
ruthless Big Ten can only do so much.
Gaines sputtered out a few answers for
the reporters, and then dropped his pizza
all over the Kohl Center floor.
. It wasn't the first time that Gaines had
undermined his personal expectations.
"Go-go" had tried putting the
Wolverines on his back three days earli-
er, in a 21-point loss to Indiana on Feb.
13, but failed the challenge miserably,
missing all 15 of the shots he took from
the floor.
The kid from Las Vegas - the town
where success under pressure makes the
difference between riches and rags -
wasn't capable of executing Michigan's
offense all by himself. It showed.
During the first 15 games of
Michigan's season, as the team's promise
captivated the headband-toting fans,
Gaines wasn't the first scoring option in
the back court. His initial job was bring-
ing the ball up the floor and, when nec-
essary, breaking an opponent's full-court
press. Gaines' task was getting the ball
into the hands of long-armed Crawford,
Michigan's go-to-guy.

But when NCAA violations confined
Crawford to the bench through
Michigan's "murderers' row" stretch,
Gaines inherited something equivalent
to the weight of the program. Without
another bona fide guard, it became
Gaines' job to bring the ball up the floor,
set up the offense and against defenses
like those of Indiana, Michigan State and
Ohio State, throw up shots for lack of a
better gameplan.
Gaines performed better at Wisconsin,
leading the team on offense with 16
points, on 6-of-14 shooting, but couldn't
stop the Badgers' unconscious three-
point barrage. Duany Duany and compa-
ny nailed 11 consecutive long bombs,
partly because they didn't have
Crawford's 6-foot-6 frame to contend
with around the arc.
Michigan coach Brian Ellerbe later
criticized the defense of swingman Leon
Jones, and has admitted in the past that
sharp shooter Gavin Groninger is often
overmatched athletically.
That left Gaines virtually all alone in
the backcourt. "Go-go" tried. He execut-
ed the fast break by himself. He played
for 38 minutes. But Gaines couldn't
carry the entire team in his pizza box.
And when he dropped his postgame
treat in front of the press after the sev-
enth-consecutive loss, Michigan's dilern-
na became clear as day.

JESSICA JOHNSON/Daily
Michigan State is back in the CCHA title race. Everything is on the line when the
Spartans come to Yost Ice Arena on Friday.

granted an automatic NCAA
Tournament bid. The other conference
teams have to earn their invitations dur-
ing the CCHA Tournament - the win-
ner also earns a ticket.
"You have to beat the teams that are
trying to catch you," Michigan coach
Red Berenson said. "We didn't give up
any ground to Northern (Michigan) this
past weekend, but we lost some ground
to Michigan State. We've played some
great hockey in the last four games and
our team will be ready to go on Friday."
Though the Spartans and the
Wolverines meet twice this coming
weekend, only Friday's game at Yost Ice
Arena will count towards conference
standings. Saturday's game, which will
be played at the Joe Louis Arena, will
only affect the national standings.
Essentially, it has become a single-
contest weekend - i.e. Michigan has
one chance to lock up the CCHA crown.
"Friday could be the game for first
place,' Berenson said. "If they win, then
it's all tied up and it goes down to the
next few games. If we win the game,
we'll have a four point lead. It's ours to

win and it's ours to lose"
If the Spartans win on Friday, the
teams will be tied heading into the final
weekend of conference play. Sparty and
company finish out the CCHA regular
season playing a home-and-home series
with Notre Dame, which has clawed its
way back into fifth place in the confer-
ence. Michigan closes out with Bowling
Green, which split a weekend series with
the Wolverines earlier this season.
Michigan and its arch-rival have three
days left to prepare for the most impor-
tant game of the season, so far. The
anticipation has escaped no one.
"We're going to be ready for Michigan
State," Michigan center Mike Comrie
said. "It's going to the biggest game all
year and both teams know it. We're going
to have a hard week of practice and be
ready for Friday night. Last year it was
tough knowing that they won it.
"Hopefully there are 25 guys in our
dressing room who want it more than
they do. On my recruiting trip, I learned
about the rivalry. Every time you're in
the game, you know you love your team,
and you love to hate them."

Don't miss our coverage over break

Even if you're in paradise, the Wolverines will he in action over spring
break. But The Michigan Daily will set aside its umbrella drinks and suntan
lotion (momentarily) to provide comprehensive coverage -as always.
Get out of the sun, and get onto the Daily Sports Website.
Men's basketball
* Women's basketball
Hockey'
0 Wrestling
Big Ten Championships
michigandaily.com / sports
Daily Sports. When Michigan sports news happens,
we don't take breaks.

Point guard Kevin
Gaines will be the
happiest man in
Crisler Arena If
backcourt mate
Jamal Crawford
returns for
Thursday's game
against Purdue.
Though he tried
valiantly, Gaines
hasn't been able
to pick up the
scoring slack dur-
ing Crawford's
six-game
absence.
KIMITSU YOGACHI/Daily

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