National Championship Preview
63 games have been played in the 2009 NCAA Tournament, leaving just one game left to decide who will be crowned this year’s national champ as the Michigan State Spartans face up against the North Carolina Tar Heels.
The Michigan State Spartans come in to the game as a two seed, winning the Midwest region and defeating the Connecticut Huskies in the Final Four matchup on Saturday. The Spartans came into the tournament as the biggest second seed underdog, thanks to a terrible perception of the Big Ten and most people’s thinking that teams from the Big Ten simply do not score enough to make it far in the tournament.
What head coach Tom Izzo and the rest of the Spartans showed was that solid offense, combined with lockdown defense and unbelievable tenacity, can get a team like this anywhere. They were not supposed to beat Kansas in the Sweet 16 and surely were not given any love against the overall one seed Lousiville Cardinals.
Despite the Big Ten label, the Spartans were fought their way into the Final Four, but also brought the youngest team with young gun sophomores Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers and Chris Allen to Detroit. Raymar Morgan and Goran Suton are the older Spartans along with Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Travis Walton.
A big advantage for the Spartans going into this game is location. Ford Field in Michigan will have green and white everywhere as thousands of Michigan State fans are expected to make the trip for tonight’s game. As seen in the Connecticut game, the crowd really got behind the Spartans and, despite the 72,000 seat stadium they were playing in, it really felt like a home game for them.
Unfortunately for Michigan State, home court advantage does not automatically give them the trophy. They go up against an unbelievably talented North Carolina team that has been the favorite to win the championship since Day one, and was the one team that was talked about as a contender all year.
Offensively, Michigan State faces a much easier task than they did against Connecticut. The Tar Heels play average defense at best and leave a lot of open shots. While Villanova did not capitalize on them Saturday, a disciplined and highly efficient backcourt should hit these open shots. Not including the six-overtime game against Syracuse, Connecticut had given up 82 points (MSU’s total against them Saturday) three times all year to Marquette, Villanova, and Gonzaga.
Do not think for one second that Michigan State will not be able to keep up with North Carolina’s pace. Lucas has played the point guard position extremely well, averaging 14.4 points and 5.4 assists per game in the tournament. Suton has been a monster all year and will have his hands full with Tyler Hansbrough down low, but his ability to come out on the perimiter should make it a very tough game for the North Carolina senior.
Role players have been the story for the Spartans all year, and guys like Morgan, Summers, Roe, and Allen fit into their roles perfectly on offense, leading to good passes and open looks.
Despite their underrated offensive play, the place that Michigan State can win tonight’s game is going to be on the other end of the court. All year long, the Spartans have preached lockdown defense against every opponent, and it has worked outstandingly.
On the year, Michigan State sported a +9.6 rebounding margin, which led the nation. It sounds like a broken record player, but the Spartans are so discplined on the court that North Carolina’s up-tempo offense will not confuse and take them out of position on defense.
They are not as fast as the Tar Heels and are not pretending to be. What they are trying to be are solid defenders who do not allow second chance points and contest every shot that goes up. Michigan State will be able to slow down the pace of the game with their defense which could cause North Carolina to get out of their rhythm.
Once this occurs, it will come down to which team can play within the game and run a set offense, and that could very well be Michigan State.
In the tournament, the story for the Tar Heels has been absolute dominance. Even in games where they did not look their best, in my opinion the LSU and Villanova game, they still won those games by 14 points both times. What this tells me is that this team is athletic enough to stay in any game and outrun their opponents.
Their offense starts with Ty Lawson and Roy Williams has no problem if it ends with Lawson as well. The junior is averaging just under 21 points and seven assists per game in the four tournament games he has played in. Consider that he is doing this all with a sprained big toe, and it makes him that much more impressive.
He will face a very tough opponent in the aforementioned Travis Walton who, after seeing him against UConn, plays some of the best man-t0-man defense in the nation. Lawson has the speed advantage on Walton and will likely use that to penetrate the Michigan State defense, leading to a lot of open looks for perimter shooters in Danny Green and Wayne Ellington.
North Carolina must get the tempo going against Michigan State, something that Connecticut did not do in their loss to the Spartans. If they can, UNC is much faster on the court and deeper on the bench, and that will wear down the Michigan State defense.
Tyler Hansbrough looks to end his North Carolina career on a good note and will use his strength inside to cause havoc on Suton. Hansbrough should get some very good looks tonight and could control the game inside if he wants to. I have been knocking them all year, but the rest of the North Carolina frontcourt needs to get a lot stronger inside.
Ed Davis and Deon Thompson are very quick for their size and seem to be in the right spot for offensive rebounds, but they do not battle as much as I would like them to (Villanova out-rebounded the Tar Heels Saturday) and against a very strong rebounding team in Michigan State, second chances will be few and far between. As most games have been for the Tar Heels this year, they will win it with offense.
They have some of the best scorers in the nation to go with the best point guard in the nation, and that is about as deadly as a combination as I can think of. Their speed and size allows them to run the break and go hard to the hoop and it will be very tough for Michigan State to slow them down.
Defensively, North Carolina needs to step up their game. They got very lucky against Villanova that the Wildcats were cold from downtown, but tonight they had better not count on getting lucky twice.
Do not let the numbers on North Carolina fool you, giving up 72 points per game. They are lazy at times and get out-physicaled more than they should. Just because they average over 90 points per game does not mean that it will happen tonight against a very good defensive Michigan State team.
Good defense in turn will lead to fast break opportunities off missed shots, and that will be the key to North Carolina taking this game. Lawson will need to slow down Lucas at the point of attack and not let them run the set plays that coach Izzo draws up.
The size advantages of Green and Ellington will be key in not letting the Spartans get into the lane to draw fouls and get high percentage shots. Fortunately, Michigan State does not shoot the three-point ball very well shooting 35 percent on the year, despite 38 percent from downtown in the tournament.
I have faith that North Carolina will step up their game defensively and lock down the open looks that Michigan State will try to get. Like it was said earlier, this UNC team is stacked full of athletes that get after the ball at all times and can make up a lot of ground just on the fact of them being very athletic.
Earlier in the year, North Carolina beat Michigan State 98-63 in the same Ford Field that they will play at tonight. Despite not having Goran Suton, the game was not even close and the up-tempo Tar Heels ran away with the game led by Tyler Hansbrough’s 25 point performance and Ty Lawson’s near-triple double.
This game is sure to be much closer this time around, and while bench play and rotations will be important, this one is going to come down for the stars that will go up against one another tonight. Hansbrough, one of the best college basketball players to ever put on Tar Heel blue, has one game left.
Michigan State is playing in front of a home crowd and has become the team of destiny that has upset two number one seeds in the process.
Both of these teams are red-hot, but in the end I think that North Carolina’s athleticism and strength on offense will be too much for Michigan State in the end, and Psycho-T will finally get that National Championship he has wanted for four years. North Carolina 84, Michigan State 80