2009 Final Four Preview

Fri, 04/03/2009 - 8:15am

Final Four in the Motor City


Everyone knows it hasn’t been a great year for the Motor City. But, despite the rough economic times that Detroit faces, the Final Four is in town, and they have a big reason to pay attention since homegrown Michigan State is participating in the final weekend of America’s favorite tournament. This year’s Final Four has plenty of story lines:

Villanova faces off with North Carolina in the NCAA tournament. The last time this happened was in 2005, when a very suspicious call by the official virtually sealed the victory for North Carolina. Quick recap: Villanova down by three in the waning moments when guard Allan Ray drove to the lane, made the shot as the whistle blew. Everyone thought that Ray would be shooting a free throw to tie the game and possibly sending it into overtime. Everyone… except official Tom O’neill who signaled a travelling call on Ray. North Carolina went on the win the game, and the national championship. Villanova fans are still very bitter about that moment and they will be most definitely looking to revenge that loss on Saturday night.

In the face serious recruiting violations Connecticut is looking for its 3rd national championship under Jim Calhoun. Allegedly, Uconn engaged in wrongful recruiting actions with former guard Nate Miles, who was expelled from Uconn in October, 2008. Coaches and players will say that they are concentrating on the games this weekend and nothing else, but can they really block out everything going on this weekend and not let it affect their play? We will soon find out.

North Carolina is the lone returner from last year’s Final Four. After being outclassed by eventual National Champion Kansas in the semifinal game, the core of the Tarheel team decided to return for another shot at the title. The top-ranked team in the preseason looks like the favorite in this year’s Final Four.

Finally, home team Michigan State will try to win its first National Championship since 2000. Tom Izzo has now gotten his Spartans to the Final Four for the fifth time since 1999, which is more than any program in the nation. Should Izzo collect his 2nd ring it would be the first time since 1975 that a team won a National title in its home state.

Now, for the match-ups:


#1 Connecticut Huskies vs. #2 Michigan State Spartans:

 
 


Hasheem Thabeet
 
How Connecticut got here: In the first round they dismantled 16-seed Chattanooga, 103-47, led by Stanley Robinson’s 24 points. In the 2nd round they took care of business with 9-seed Texas A&M, 92-66. After cruising past the 1st two rounds, they finally found some resistance in a tough Purdue team. The 5-seed Boilermakers made their runs at Uconn, but they were outlasted by the Huskies, 72-60. Finally, last Saturday they earned a trip to the Final Four by surviving a tough game versus 3-seed Missouri, 82-75. In that game, freshman Kemba Walker came off the bench to score a game-high 23 points.

How Michigan State got here: They got past 15-seed Robert Morris in the 1st round behind 16 points from Raymar Morgan, 77-62. In the 2nd round, they survived a scare from the 10-seed USC Trojans, 74-69. Last weekend they played in one of the most exciting games of the tourney, knocking off defending champion Kansas, 67-62. Guard Kalin Lucas led the Spartans with 18 points in that game, including the deciding bucket with less than a minute left. Finally, on Sunday, the Spartans surprisdly had little problem with the overall # 1 seed Louisville Cardinals, dispatching Rick Pitino’s crew, 64-52.

Advantage for Connecticut: Size. The Huskies are very big and it all starts with center, 7-3 Hasheem Thabeet (4 blocks vs. Purdue). After that its power forward and very burly 6-7 Jeff Adrien (3 blocks vs. Missouri). At the small forward position is the very long and athletic 6-9 Stanley Robinson (4 blocks vs. Missouri). It will be very difficult for Michigan State to attack the hoop with the NBA-size that Uconn’s frontcourt has. Michigan State will have to hit some outside shots and pull Connecticut’s big men out of the paint in order to be effective on the offensive end .

Advantage for Michigan State: Home Court. The Spartans get to play in front of their fans by playing in Detroit. That should have an effect on a Michigan State team in a positive way. Early in the year the Spartans didn’t fare so well playing in Detroit, getting completely destroyed by the North Carolina Tarheels, 98-63. Good news for the Spartans, that game was played on December 3rd, and was played without their bigman Goran Suton. This Michigan State team is entirely different from the one in December, and playing at Ford Field in Detroit will absolutely be an advantage on Saturday, and possibly Monday.

 
 


Tom Izzo
 
Key Player for Connecticut: Center - Hasheem Thabeet. He isn’t only the key player for the Uconn, but for the whole Final Four. Of all the remaining players left in the tournament, no one can control the paint like Thabeet. If the 7-3 center is at his best this weekend, blocking and altering shots in the paint, then the Huskies will be tough to beat and should result in Jim Calhoun collecting his third ring.

Key Player for Michigan State: Forward – Raymar Morgan. He is the Spartans 2nd leading scorer on the year, but he has gone MIA on his team recently. In the last three games he has scored only 7 points (1/12 fg), including zero vs. Louisville last Sunday. Other Spartans have stepped up in his absence and they are playing great basketball. But, if coach Izzo can somehow get through to Morgan and find a way for him to start contributing again, it would add a whole other dimension to a team that is already playing great.

Prediction: Both teams have guards playing well: AJ Price and Kemba Walker for the Huskies, and Kalin Lucas and Travis Walton for the Spartans. So, guard play should be a wash in this game. The difference is going to come in the battle of the big men. Michigan State’s Goran Suton carried the Spartans in the 1st half in their win over Louisville with his shooting. He is the prototypical big man needed to play in a game vs. Connecticut. Coach Izzo will keep Suton at the high post and try to pull Uconn’s big men away from the paint with his shooting (3/5 from three vs. Louisville). If Suton and the other Spartans can keep Uconn honest and force them to defend the arc, they may be effective in attacking the Huskies. But, along with a good shooting performance, it’s still going to take a mistake free game from the Spartans to overcome the size and athleticism of Uconn’s front line. A tight game, but Connecticut survives, 63-57.


#1 North Carolina vs. #3 Villanova


 
 


Ty Lawson
 
How North Carolina got here: In the 1st round they easily finished off Radford, 101-58. Then they got a scare from LSU in the second round, but eventually took off at the end of the game for a 84-70 win. Last weekend they handled Gonzage without a problem, 98-77. Finally, on Sunday they advanced to the Final Four with a 72-60 win over Blake Griffin’s Oklahoma Sooners.

How Villanova got here: The 1st round was actually a bit of a scare for Villanova, being down by 14 at one point in the 2nd half to American, but eventually pulling it out with a 80-67 victory. In the 2nd round it was much easier as they controlled the whole game vs. UCLA, winning 89-69. Next game wasn’t too much different as they easily handled Duke, 77-54. Then, in the best game of the tournament they beat Pittsburgh, 78-76 with a shot by Scottie Reynolds with 0.5 seconds left.

Advantage for North Carolina: Offensive weapons. The Tarheels have plenty of them. During the year, North Carolina has five players averaging double-digits. They are averaging more than 88 points a game during the tournament. In a sweet-16 match-up with Gonzaga, the Tarheels were clicking on all cylinders. They put up 98 points and shot 52% from the field (starters shots 66%) and shot 55% from beyond the arc. Should the Tarheels put up those type of numbers this weekend in Detroit, Roy Williams will be cutting down the nets again.

Advantage for Villanova: Quickness. At every position, Villanova is very quick. Take Ty Lawson away from the Tarheels, and Villanova will have the 3 or 4 quickest players on the court. Scottie Reynolds, Corey Fisher, or Corey Stokes should have a mismatch with a bigger or slower Tarheel guarding them. Even inside, Dante Cunningham will be shorter (about 6’7) but should have a quickness advantage if they decide to stick with a big man guarding him. Villanova is going to try and spread the court as much as possible and take advantage of some quickness match-ups.

 
 


Dante Cunningham
 
Key player for North Carolina: Guard - Wayne Ellington. Other teams are going to worry mostly about Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson. If the Tarheels can get another great performance out of Ellington it would be too much to overcome for any team left in the tourney. In the 2nd round vs. LSU, Ellington made numerous big shots and finished with 23 points. He should be able to shoot over the top of Villanova’s smaller guards so it could be another good night for Ellington, which usually means good news for the Tarheels.

Key player for Villanova: Forward - Dwayne Anderson. The 6-6 senior was instrumental in Villanova’s victory of Pittsburgh. In the final minutes of the game he had a steal which resulted in a three point play and another three point shot. Anderson has been playing good all tourney, totaling 60 points in four games. If he can continue his play, he should help the Wildcats matchup on the defensive end and give Villanova another scoring option on the offensive end.

Prediction: Villanova has been playing incredible defense all tournament long, but North Carolina has been playing better offense. This game is going to come down to matchups. Villanova is going to try and spread North Carolina out and exploit quickness matchups. North Carolina is very balanced offensively, and should be able to go to Hansbrough in the paint often. With Villanova lacking a great shot blocker, the former National Player of the Year could have a big night. On the flip side, Villanova is playing with house money. Every team in Detroit was supposed to be here when the season started except for the Wildcats, so they should be playing very loose. Overall, too many weapons for North Carolina and they will advance, 84-72, to play Uconn in the finals.


Enjoy the games on Saturday, and make sure to check back in for a preview of the final matchup.
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