Final Four Debates With Kevin
The best part about sports is that they are completely debatable, and when you find two passionate people that love the game, the arguments that ensue are awesome and intense (and sometimes can get out of hand). I have found lately that these debates have occurred between me and my good friend Kevin Shanley. Kevin, a sophomore at Marquette University, is a Marquette Golden Eagles fan and would be the president of the Wesley Matthews Fan Club if there was one. But ranked right below the Golden Eagles on Kevin’s college basketball team depth chart are the North Carolina Tar Heels. So I have decided to debate him, 1-on-1, on the Final Four matchups. Kevin has taken the North Carolina Tar Heels and the Michigan State Spartans, while I will debate the soon-to-be national champion UConn Huskies and the Villanova Wildcats.
(Ironically enough, if Connecticut wins it all I win the bracket Kevin and I are in, and if North Carolina wins it all, Kevin wins)
We will debate each matchup based on four factors: guardplay/outside shooting, inside play/inside shooting, defense, and intangibles. There are no winners or losers in the debate, but rather good spirited arguments about which teams will play on Monday to determine the national champion.
Villanova’s Back Court
The first thing I will say is that Villanova’s back court is a lot stronger than North Carolina’s for one simple reason: everyone can play there! When you look at Villanova this season, the leader in the back court is undoubtedly Scottie Reynolds. Despite having a so-so tournament (sans the game-winner against Pitt), he has averaged 33 minutes per game and is crucial to the Wildcats’ success on offense. This kid can hit from anywhere on the court, and I know that you have seen it Kevin, because I watched him torch Marquette with you. As is the case for every player in the back court, this team can and will catch fire at any time and the runs this team gets on because of it are hard to keep up with. But don’t think that the Wildcats stop with Reynolds. Corey Stokes and Corey Fisher are the next two reasons why North Carolina’s back court is going to be sucking air for 40 minutes on Saturday. Both of these players bring everything to the table with great outside shots (33% and 42% from three point range), shutdown defense, and great speed on both ends of the floor.
Next up is personally my favorite player on this Villanova squad and the reason this back court is so multi-dimensional, and that is the play of Dwayne Anderson. Anderson is listed at 6’6”, but the senior can play any position on the court. He is an above average ball handler, great spot shooter, and can also go inside (which is why I am going to cheat and use him for my inside game as well). He has averaged 15 points and 8 rebounds in the tournament, but is also 6 for 11 from downtown. He is able to guard a shooting guard and both forward positions and is just unbelievably versatile. Reggie Redding rounds out the back court, but do not sleep on this guy either, as he averages seven points and five rebounds per game and is one of Villanova’s best defenders.
Look, the name of the game for Villanova is speed and that is exactly what their back court brings. The depth, talent, and speed is why I believe Villanova has the better back court.
North Carolina’s Back Court
Now I understand the strength of Villanova’s backcourt is their personal strength, but in comparison to North Carolina’s, there is no question which team has the better players… the Tar Heels. This is mainly due to ACC player of the year Ty Lawson. Lawson was plagued by a right toe injury towards the end of the season, and was unable to play in the ACC tournament, as well as the UNC routing of Radford in the first round of the NCAA tournament. The loss of Lawson proved to hurt the Tar Heels tremendously as shown in the loss to Florida State in the ACC Tournament, but with a “healthy” Lawson, the Tar Heels are the best team in the nation. Lawson spearheads the North Carolina offense with his speed, passing ability, and as of late- his three-point shot. Averaging just over 16 points a game, as well as six and a half assists, Lawson proves to be too much for opposing defenders. Defensively, Lawson is stellar as well pulling in two steals a game, making Lawson a complete point guard, something necessary to win in the tournament.
The Tar Heels do not stop with Lawson in their guard play. They receive help from Wayne Ellington and Danny Green as well to round out the back court. Ellington averages 15.6 points per game, as well as 4.8 rebounds. He has been a force whenever Lawson is unable to put the ball in the hoop, as seen in his 24, 25, and 23 point games against Florida State, Radford and LSU when Lawson either did not play, or was limited action. Ellington’s ability to be reliable for the Tar Heels when Lawson or Hansbrough are slumping makes him vital to the Tar Heels success.
The final piece to this lethal back court is my favorite Tar Heel, Danny Green. Previously famous for his dancing antics and ability to fire up his team, the senior Green will continue to be overlooked in the potent UNC offense. Green coming in at 6’6”, 210lbs presents a matchup problem for anyone. With his ability to handle the ball, hit the outside shot, and be a presence in the post, I would compare him to a better Lazar Hayward (for a quick MU reference). Green seems to be there day in and day out for the Tar Heels, creating a steady balance of points (at 13.3), and rebounds (4.8), Green is a production machine for UNC.
In the end, the experience factor with two juniors in Lawson and Ellington and a senior leader in Green assist the Tar Heels in possessing the better backcourt. The ability to shoot the ball extremely well from long range, as well as the driving abilities of Lawson will be too much for the Wildcats on Saturday. This trio is one of the best in the nation, and will expose Villanova, proving to everyone that they are the better backcourt.
North Carolina’s Front Court
North Carolina’s Frontcourt is better than Villanova’s for one reason, Tyler Hansbrough. Psycho-T is coming off of an terrible game against Oklahoma and I think that this spells trouble for Villanova. Hansbrough is the type of player who does not have two bad games in a row. His frustration was apparent towards the end of the Oklahoma game where he tried to dunk over a better Blake Griffin. Psycho-T will be a force over Cunningham and expose Villanova’s lack of height. He is coming in averaging almost 21 points a game, matched with 8 boards per game. No one on this Villanova roster will be able to contain him and due to his lack of success in his previous game, I look for Hansbrough to have a huge game and lift UNC to the NCAA Championship game. The second piece to the UNC frontcourt is Deon Thompson, the only starter on this amazing UNC team that does not receive constant national attention. Thompson and his 6’8″ frame will present a size problem for Villanova as well. He’s also averaging a quiet 10.7 points per game along with grabbing down almost six boards per contest. Although I do not think Thompson will have as big as an effect as the other players on this UNC roster, look for him to continue to quietly score against the Wildcats. In the end, it all starts and ends with Tyler Hansbrough for the Tar Heels. The All-American will take out all his frustration from his last game against the Villanova frontcourt, and in the end, ruin the magical run that Villanova has had so far in the tournament.
Villanova’s Front Court
While Villanova’s front court does not have the star power that North Carolina’s does, the Tar Heels will be in for a rude awakening if they forget about power forward Dante Cunningham. Cunningham, the Big East’s Most Improved Player, has been playing outstanding all year and even better in the tournament. His ability to play down-low is great, but even better is his 17-foot jump shot that seems to go in every time. His 18 points and eight rebounds per game in the tournament have Villanova in Detroit and you will not see a letdown from him against North Carolina. Yes, he is going up against your boy Hansbrough but we have already seen that Psycho-T has trouble with forwards that can come out on the perimeter. Dwayne Anderson (here he is again) is another guy that will play bigger than he really is on the inside and use his athleticism to cause havoc down low. Shane Clark is another player like Anderson that can play multiple positions and does a lot of the dirty work inside for the Wildcats. Putting the two of them down low, combined with Cunningham, makes for a very athletic and hard-working front court that will out hustle the Tar Heels. An “x-factor”, if you will, for the Wildcats might be Antonio Pena. He has not played a lot in the tournament but is very physical and if the bigger Tar Heels start to dominate down low, he could play crucial minutes to stop that run.
Alright, I admit that I will probably have to concede this one to you as Villanova is up against last year’s Player of the Year and first team All-American in Hansbrough. But I still think the key to Villanova keeping this game close will be how Cunningham is able to use his jump shot as well his power inside to keep North Carolina on their toes, regardless of where he is on the court. If Anderson and Clark are able to use their speed to beat their defenders off the dribble, it could spell trouble for a defense that, at times, is very shaky.
I guess to fairly debate Villanova’s defense I have to talk about it in regards to North Carolina’s offense. The first thing I will say is I like the matchups that Villanova is going to bring to the table against the Tar Heels. First is Dante Cunningham, who will match up against Tyler Hansbrough. Cunningham has been outstanding on defense all year and being from the Big East, you know he loves a challenge. What was interesting in watching the Oklahoma-UNC game was how Blake Griffin played outstanding defense on Psycho-T, and as I watched more and more I saw a lot of similarities in how Cunningham plays defense. Offensively, Griffin is very different and much better than him, but on the other side of the ball not so much. Griffin played faster than Hansbrough and did not let him get into any rhythm as he only had eight points and six rebounds in the contest. Cunningham also likes to play fast at times, while also having the weapon of being physical in his back pocket.
Scottie Reynolds will have his hands full against Ty Lawson and must shut him down if Villanova wants to have a chance. Danny Green and Wayne Ellington are going to be shut down in every aspect of this game by Dwayne Anderson and Reggie Redding. The best part of the Villanova defense is that North Carolina’s great size is not as much of a factor because, despite being big on defense, they are also quick enough to hang with the Tar Heels. Corey Fisher might have a tough time with Ellington’s size, but Stokes will play a key role in the rotation of keeping fresh defenders on the very talented North Carolina shooters. Down low, Deon Thompson and Ed Davis look a little timid at times, and that is the last thing you want to do when going up against Shane Clark and Antonio Pena. Both of them play extremely physical down low and the North Carolina big men (other than Hansbrough) should not get more than their point averages in this one.
OK, North Carolina is probably the best offensive team in the nation, it’s hard for me to debate that and even harder to admit it. But if there is one team out there that matches the size and the speed of a North Carolina team, I’ll take Villanova over most other teams in the nation.
North Carolina’s Defense
Defensively, I think both these teams match up well. Both offenses like to play the run-and-gun offense, and defense is the X factor for this game. Villanova has great defense from players like Stokes, Anderson, Redding, and obviously Reynolds, but UNC has great defenders as well, and this comes from stars Hansbrough, Green, and Lawson. Yes, the Villanova guards are quick and can score from virtually every place on the court, but the UNC defense is ready to run and contest any shot. The matchup of Lawson and Reynolds will be an interesting one, but in the end I’d take Lawson to have a better game offensively and defensively. Another great UNC defender is Green. He is averaging just fewer than two steals a game and over a block a game, showing that he can stop you in more than just one way. Finally, the defensive presence of Hansbrough will be too much for Cunningham. Although Tyler doesn’t have the stats to prove his defensive abilities, he’s a very physical player that will not be pushed around by anyone. If you get in this kid’s face, you’re in for quite the physical game. This will eliminate the threat of Cunningham, who is key to the Villanova offensive and once again prove why North Carolina is the better team.
North Carolina’s Intangibles
I respect Villanova for the run they have had, and hey, I’m all for the Big East making it far in the tournament. However, I think UNC is playing for something bigger. Coming into the season, this team was thought to go undefeated through the entire season and win the NCAA tournament. But this was proved incorrect with horrid losses against teams like Boston College and Maryland. Coming into the tournament there were questions about Lawson’s health and he has proved to everyone that he can play through the pain, and lead his team like he did all season long. Although Villanova might seem like a team of “destiny”, talent overrules this and UNC’s got plenty of it. Players like Lawson and Hansbrough came back for one reason: to win a championship and settle for nothing less. Villanova, I congratulate you on a great run, but North Carolina is a better team than you. Sorry Mark, but you’re looking at the future NCAA champions in the North Carolina Tar Heels.
If you want to even call them one, Villanova is this year’s cinderalla. As a three seed, they are going up against the best teams from the Big East, ACC, and Big Ten. They definitely deserve to be here, but more than any other team remaining, they have gotten here on heart, determination, and getting hot at the right time. I fully believe they will be able to keep this streak going against North Carolina. As we talked about earlier in the week and on the radio show, it will take a great game from Villanova and a below average game for UNC for the Wildcats to come out on top. However, I don’t see that being too far out of the question. Villanova style of play has worked for them all year, and that is to hang with teams until they find their stroke from outside, and then pull away like the game was never close. Two games that remind me of this are the Marquette game and the Providence game. In both, the game looked as though it could go either way before the back court just started scoring at will and Cunningham knocked down everything from 17 feet on in. Do I think North Carolina is going to win this game? Yes. But this Villanova team is not getting a lot of respect that it has tried to gain all year, and Saturday might mark the end of them putting up with it. I look for Hansbrough and Lawson to play outstanding as they always do, but I also think Ellington and especially Green are going to struggle against a solid Villanova team. Good luck, Kevin.
CONNECTICUT VS. MICHIGAN STATE
Michigan State’s Backcourt
Looking at the teams on the other end of the bracket, I look for a much better matchup than the UNC-Villanova game. Yes Connecticut is the more talented team, but if you are looking for an upset, look no further than the Michigan State Spartans. The Michigan State backcourt lives and dies with their leader Kalin Lucas. This guy can straight up play and provides matchup issues for whoever is guarding him. Averaging 14.6 points per game and 4.6 assists a game, Lucas is one of the league’s premier young players being only a sophomore. Lucas is vital if Michigan State wants any chance of upsetting Connecticut. Lucas runs the Spartan offense very well and is able to run in transition. He passes and scores with relative ease, making him a very dangerous player. His ability to drive as well as make the outside jumper makes him a handful for defenders and is the reason he is the focus of this offense. Joining Lucas in the Michigan State backcourt are Chris Allen and Durrell Summers. Neither of these players have the star mentality that Lucas does, but both players know their role and can score when needed. Allen and Summers are both averaging above 8 points a game, making them important to the Michigan State offense. Yes, Connecticut is very talented all around, but if they want to win this game, they’re going to have to find a way to contain Lucas, otherwise the Huskies could be in for a long game.
The Huskies are led by senior point guard A.J. Price, and have been for the last four years. While the loss of Jerome Dyson has turned them into a different team, the backcourt has managed to keep things steady and will look to do so against a very good defensive team in Michigan State. Price is averaging 14.7 points per game on the year and 4.8 assists and runs the show for a very efficient offense. Even more importantly might be the play of Kemba Walker and Craig Austrie that have taken over for Dyson after the injury. Walker was one of the main reasons that Connecticut is playing in this game, going off for 23 points, five assists, and five rebounds against Missouri. Austrie had 17 points against Purdue and has created senior leadership in any already experienced lineup, as well as good offense. The backcourt is extremely balanced and has done a great job this year running the offense. While the defense is ruled by the frontcourt in Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien, Price and Walker have a tight grasp on how the offense runs every game. Against Michigan State, they will need to get good looks at the basket and make sure they do not turn the ball over because the Spartans will capitalize.
This is where the debate basically ends in the debate of who wins what. I actually really like Goran Suton and think he is unbelievably talented and perfect for Tom Izzo’s system. Unfortunately, Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien stand in the way of Suton accomplishing whatever it is he wants. Thabeet, the co-Big East Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, will control this game completely on offense. He does not get a lot of touches on offense, averaging less than six shots per game, but he makes the most of them shooting 65% from the field. Also, Jeff Adrien has been the unheralded senior that no one talks about because of Thabeet. He averages a double double and is the heart and soul of Connecticut’s team and has the ability to run with the guards as well, making him the perfect kind of player for this offense. The one guy seemingly flying under the radar, more than Adrien (if that’s possible), is Stanley Robinson. Ever since he came back from his injury, he has been a dominating force with a decent mid-range game and thunderous dunks all over the court. Michigan State, despite being a very good team defensively everywhere, will have no answer for these three and whoever isn’t scoring, you can bet the other two will be. Advantage Huskies all night long.
Michigan State’s Frontcourt
The Michigan State frontcourt is where Connecticut has the clear advantage, but if Goran Suton can continue playing like he has in the NCAA tournament, an upset could be in sight. On the season, Suton is averaging around ten points a game, but he has really turned it on in the tournament. Against Kansas, Suton put up 20 points and against a very good Louisville team, he put up 19 points. He has been the key to Michigan State’s success as of late and needs to continue this success if Sparty wants to advance any farther. Joining Suton down low will be Raymar Morgan who has been limited as of late. Morgan has had a successful season, averaging 10.2 points per game and 5.3 boards a game. The Spartans need Morgan to find his shot and be able to play more minutes than the ten he did against Lousiville. Off the bench, Michigan State will be expecting some production from forward Delvon Roe, a freshman who has played a good role off the bench averaging 5.8 points per game and five rebounds per game. The freshman Roe has seen an increase in playing time and will be important off the bench to give Suton or Morgan a breather. In the end, Connecticut has a much better frontcourt, but if MSU is able to get Thabeet and Adrian in foul trouble, Michigan State could utilize their depth at this position to make a run at the Huskies.
Michigan State’s Defense
Playing in the Big Ten, Michigan State is used to playing plenty of defense and running down opponents. The only problem here is the fact they will be playing one of the best offensive teams in the nation. Michigan State must try to contain Thabeet, a problem many teams have had this year. If Thabeet is able to establish an offensive game, this adds another weapon to an already Connecticut team. Coach Izzo will be asking a lot out of the frontcourt in Suton and Morgan in hopes to contain Thabeet and Adrien. If the Spartans can limit the offensive firepower in the paint, they have a shot to win this game. Guard-wise Lucas is quite the defender. Lucas will try to stop A.J. Price, who is on fire lately. Michigan State has had a great run defensively, but never had to encounter a team like Connecticut. I feel like there’s no way to completely stop this Connecticut team, but if Michigan State can alter the shots of Price and Adrian, and limit Thabeet to only being a defensive stopper, then the Spartans could pull off the upset.
Everyone talking about this game mentions Michigan State’s defense and how they did such a nice job shutting down Big Ten teams, but let’s not forget about the fantastic defense of Connecticut. Led by Hasheem Thabeet in the middle, Connecticut is the toughest team in the nation to go against in the paint, which means if teams are going to beat the Huskies, they better have DaJuan Blair or fantastic outside shooters. Since they do not have the former, Michigan State better be on their A-game shooting the ball outside. That’s where the great defense of A.J. Price and Kemba Walker come in, as they have the task of shutting down DaJuan Summers and Kalin Lucas. I believe they will do so and keep Michigan State well under their season average of 71.9 points per game.
Three teams left in the Final Four have a starting lineup that averages more than a junior. The one team that does not is Michigan State and that will be their downfall in the end. Two years from now, I could see Michigan State winning it all, but they are just way too inexperienced going up against a Connecticut team that features three seniors and two juniors. Also, I do not think that Michigan State can score enough with Connecticut to keep up with them in the long run. 77 points per game is usually the minimum for teams that win the tournament. Michigan State does not have that and unfortunately, solid defense will not get it done every game. This isn’t the Big Ten anymore Sparty…
Michigan State’s Intangibles
Michigan State has one big advantage in this game, and that is the fact that it is being played in Detroit, meaning Ford Field will be packed with Spartan fans. This should give Michigan State an added boost and give them the confidence to take down the best that is Connecticut. Home field advantage is huge in college basketball and although this is not a declared home game, there will obviously be more Michigan State fans in Detroit than Connecticut fans. Tom Izzo and his tournament success is something that has played a role in Michigan State’s success. In the past 14 years, any Michigan State player who has stayed four years at Michigan State has seen a final four. This proves that Izzo is an unbelievable coach in the NCAA Tournament. Izzo is not afraid of any team, and will have his team prepared for the Huskies come Saturday night. In the end, I believe this game will be closer than most people think. Michigan State has something to prove playing in the weak Big Ten conference. I do think that Connecticut will end up taking this game, but the Spartans will put up a good fight and give the Huskies a run for their money.
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