63 games played. One to go. And after convincing wins by both North Carolina and Michigan State on Saturday night, it’s all about a rematch from a one-sided event that took place on December 3rd.
North Carolina Tar Heels
Four months ago, the top-seeded North Carolina Tarheels came into Detroit and embarrassed the 12th ranked Michigan State Spartans at Ford Field, 98-63. On Monday night, we do it all again. Same players, same coaches, same place – but the match up couldn’t be any different. Now, it’s the National Championship game instead of a non-conference contest, and nobody understands this better than Roy Williams and his North Carolina team.
Michigan State made it clear that they are a completely different animal than the team that was trying to find itself early in its 6th game of the season. On Saturday they showed just how different they were when they ousted top seeded Connecticut, 82-73. Connecticut is the second #1 seed from the Big East that the Spartans have knocked out of the tournament (Louisville being the other) in just as many games. No one has had more impressive wins than the Spartans thus far in the tourney. But, that being all said, they will still enter Monday nights matchup as the underdogs, facing off with the North Carolina Tarheels, who have been the favorite to win the national title all year long.
It’s hard not to look at the December 3rd matchup considering it is going to be played in the same building, so let’s take a look at the main reasons why this game is going to be much different:
Turnovers: One of the main reasons that the Spartans were embarrassed in the first meeting with North Carolina was because they turned the ball over 21 times. To put that in perspective, the Spartans have averaged only 13.8 turnovers during the season, and only 12.0 turnovers in the NCAA tournament. Michigan State hasn’t turned the ball over 21 times since February 17th, when the lost at Purdue. North Carolina should be given some credit for forcing turnovers in their first meeting, but this is a UNC team that is known mostly for their offensive firepower rather than their defense. If MSU continues to take care of the ball like they have all tournament, then it’s safe to say that Tom Izzo’s crew will not be turning the ball over like they did the first time they played North Carolina, regardless of how the Tarheels come out to play defensively.
Goran Suton: The fifth year senior missed the North Carolina game earlier in the year with a knee injury. Suton is Michigan State’s 3rd leading scorer on the year and the leading rebounder. His play has been even better during the tournament games. He had 20 points and 9 rebounds in a win over defending champion Kansas then followed up that performance with 19 points and 10 rebounds in an upset over #1 overall ranked Louisville. He is not a game-changer, but is essential to Tom Izzo’s team. Offensively he is very versatile and able to play both inside and outside the paint, causing matchup problems for opposing teams. The Spartans need Suton to be effective on Monday night.
Shooting Percentage: Michigan State had plenty of problems on December 3rd, and shooting was one of them. On the year, the Spartans shoot 45% from the field, 36% from 3-point territory, and shoot 70% from the line. In their first meeting, the Spartans shot 34% from the field, 23% from three-point land, and 61% free throws. Across the board, Michigan State couldn’t put the ball in the hoop. Again, not to take anything away from the Tarheels, but Izzo’s guys will not be shooting as poor in the second meeting.
Atmosphere: The home-court advantage clearly wasn’t a big problem for the Tarheels on December 3rd, but this matchup should be different. First, the attendance on Dec. 3rd at Ford Field was just over 25,000. On Monday night there will be closer to 70,000 people at the game. Second, the first game was all North Carolina from wire to wire, so the crowd never got a chance to get into the game, thus was never a factor. With a full house, and much more at stake, you can be sure it will be a different atmosphere: one that should aid the Spartans. Third, the media has connected Michigan State’s run in the tournament directly to the people of Detroit’s economic struggles. At this point, the Spartans, who are all mostly from the state of Michigan, feel like they are playing for the people of the Motor city and their pride may carry them at times on Monday night.
Prediction: The Spartans are on a roll right now, proven by wins over Louisville and Uconn. But, their biggest challenge will be on Monday night. The Tarheels were disappointed last year when they were knocked out in the Final Four by champions Kansas. Four players, Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, and Danny Green, were all considering leaving for the NBA. They decided to come back for another chance at a title, and they have one more game to play and accomplish their goal. Their legacies are on the line as well, so the ‘pride’ factor is on the Tarheels side as well.
The matchups are favoring the Tarheels. Ty Lawson is the best point guard in the nation right now, and probably the best player that will be on the court Monday night. Kalin Lucas has been phenomenal himself, but matching up with Lawson will be difficult. Guard Wayne Ellington has been shooting great for North Carolina, so the Spartans will have to pay attention to him as well. Hansbrough killed Michigan State in their first meeting (25 points and 11 rebounds).
One great sign for Michigan State is that Raymar Morgan (18 points, 9 rebounds, 5 steals) seemed to bust out of his shell against Uconn and get his confidence back after scoring a total of 7 points in the three previous games. If he can contribute again, the Spartans should have a shot at cutting down the nets.
The bottom line is the North Carolina has too much firepower to be stopped for a full 40 minutes. They have too many options offensively for the Spartans to overcome even with the home crowd giving them an extra push. I expect a competitive game, but the Tarheels top players came back for a reason instead of jumping to the NBA, and it was to win a national championship. With the Tarheels now seeing a light at the end of the tunnel, they will finish strong and accomplish their goal. By just getting to the finals in their home state is a great story for the Spartans, especially because of the times they are facing, but their hearts will be broken on Monday night by Tyler Hansbrough and company.