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Final Four Preview: Michigan State

Tue, 03/30/2010 - 11:11pm
[Note: Over the next four days, Adi Joseph will preview each of the Final Four teams remaining in the NCAA Tournament, one at a time.]
Raymar MorganRaymar MorganIn 31 games played in 2007, a span stretching across parts of his freshmen and sophomore seasons, Raymar Morgan averaged 14 points and 5.8 rebounds per game.

No one was particularly surprised. As Ohio's Mr. Basketball in 2006, the bar was set high for the prized Michigan State recruit. Midway through his sophomore year, many speculated Morgan could be a lottery draft pick at some point. He was a favorite for Big Ten player of the year.

He started 2008 with a flourish, posting 31 points and 10 rebounds to lead a Jan. 5 win against Minnesota  in Tubby Smith's Big Ten debut.

"I told some people that Raymar had a chance to be one of the best forwards ever to play here," coach Tom Izzo said after the game. "We expect an awful lot from him. He reminds me of Morris (Peterson)."

Then, he vanished.

Morgan topped 15 points just five more times that season. In a rematch with Minnesota just two weeks later, he musted just nine in 35 minutes. In two NCAA Tournament games, the Canton product totaled 11 points in 51 minutes.

There might not be a more frustrating player in the country than Morgan. In a look test, he passes with flying colors. He resembles Paul Pierce physically, and not just because of the green jersey. Morgan is a strong, long, athletic wing who, at the college level, can control the boards and create a mismatch with his athleticism against most defenders.

Pierce, though, is as mentally strong as any player in the NBA. Morgan, not so much.

Morgan's past two years have been the equivalent of a kiddie roller coaster. You know, the ones where it's mostly just a flat, low track but there's that one small peak. Lots of mediocrity, only occasional flashes of the prospect we once knew.

There were injuries and sickness, sure. But mostly, Morgan just seemed to lack confidence. It was as though he had forgotten how good he could be.

The last month has been special. In his last eight games, dating back to a Feb. 28 win against Purdue, Morgan has averaged 15.6 points and 7.6 rebounds per contest. Michigan State has won seven of those games en route to its upcoming Final Four matchup with Butler in Indianapolis on Saturday.

The 6-foot-8, 235-pound senior even pulled off the biggest play of the season last Sunday. With roughly three seconds left in a tie game, he caught the basketball equivalent of a shovel pass from teammate Draymond Green. Morgan was about four feet from the basket, but he was double-teamed.

He pump-faked, drawing a foul from J.P. Prince.

By now, you probably know the rest of the story. Morgan made the first to give Michigan State a 70-69 lead, then intentionally clanked the second, and Prince's last-gasp heave fell way, way short.

It was fitting. Morgan's entire four years at Michigan State has been one perfectly executed pump-fake. He set us up with a strong early showing, proving what he can do. Then, he held back.

Now, Morgan's gone up for the finish. When Kalin Lucas, the Spartans' best player, went down with a torn achilles tendon, many assumed Michigan State was done. Even if they could replace Lucas' talent, how could the Spartans make up for his leadership? Lucas was seen by many as the second-coming of Mateen Cleaves after leading Michigan State to the championship game last year.

Izzo will get a lot of deserved credit for Michigan State's Final Four bid. He's the best NCAA Tournament coach in the business, and he's proven it again. But a good chunk of that credit belongs to the Spartans' only senior starter.

Morgan is the prodigy who became the prodigal son. And when he returned, they rejoiced and threw a party in his honor.

The Raymar Morgan we thought we knew is back. It's probably a little late to pencil him into the draft lottery. But that party? We may just see green and white confetti on Monday night.

Scouting the Spartans

Record: 28-8, 14-4 Big Ten
Coach: Tom Izzo (364-145 in 15 seasons, 35-12 in 13 NCAA Tournaments)
Last Final Four Appearance: 2009 runners-up
Distance to Indianapolis: 258 miles from East Lansing, Mich.

Korie LuciousKorie LuciousWhy they can win: The Spartans are the only team with player experience at this level. They did it last year, and a good chunk of this team's top contributors played big minutes for last year's squad. Izzo has a March legacy, and he's lost just three times in the second game of NCAA Tournament weekends in his career. In other words, if he gets to the title game, he won't be easy to beat. Durrell Summers, Korie Lucious and Draymond Green join Morgan in playing the best basketball of their careers. The Spartans may also be the most athletic team remaining.

Why they won't win: Losing Lucas will catch up to this team at some point. Lucious struggled against the pressing defense of Maryland, and Green, a power forward, has been forced to play way out of position as a point guard at times. Butler has two defensive hounds on the perimeter, Ronald Nored and Willie Veasley, who could capitalize on the Spartans' weakened backcourt if given the opportunity. Michigan State loves to run the court off rebounds and turnovers, and the Bulldogs control pace as well as any team in the country. A championship game matchup with Duke would leave the Spartans dramatically undersized. Despite their big-game experience, the Spartans remain pretty young.

Top NBA prospect: Durrell Summers has come up huge lately, averaging 20 points per game in the tournament, and he may have worked his way into the late-first, early-second round discussion. He's an elite athlete with developing range on a nice-looking jumper. Still, Summers is just 6-4, which hurts him as a shooting guard. But his biggest flaw is his inconsistent performance. He had just one game with double-digit scoring in the eight games entering the tournament.

The X-Factor: There was a time when Delvon Roe would have been considered a top-flight NBA prospect. But after a staggering series of injuries, Roe has taken on a role-player mentality for the Spartans. He's the team's top defender, capable of guarding just about anyone while also pulling down five rebounds per game. It's his defense that often sparks the big fast breaks for Summers, Lucious and Chris Allen. Roe can lock down nearly any opponent he matches up with, and it will be interesting to see if Izzo puts him on Gordon Hayward, Butler's do-everything swingman, or Matt Howard, the team's top post presence. This season, the Spartans have often gone with smaller units, so I expect Roe to primarily focus on Howard, but also guard Hayward at many critical junctures.

Also See:

Final Four Preview: Duke
Final Four Preview: Butler
Final Four Preview: West Virginia
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This year’s March Madness

This year’s March Madness has crystallized the debate over talent versus experience, team building versus quick fixes.There are likely to be lots of people cheering on Final Four teams from colleges they never attended, in states they don't reside in and have never been to. Still, March Madness is finishing and the Final Four teams are Duke University, Michigan State, West Virginia, and Butler – and a lot of people will be going to money lenders to bet on or to travel to Lucas Oil stadium to look at the action. Universities often profit heavily off of sports teams, while increasing the tuition of authentic students, attending for academic pursuits.

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