Monday, April 6, 2009

Title Game Preview

After nearly six months and more than 10,000 games, we are finally here.

Doesn't October 17th seem so long ago?

The weather in Detroit is, well, disgusting (35 degrees and snowing? Great place for the Final Four), but it hasn't stopped Sparty nation from being out in full force. I've never seen so much of one color in one place in my life.

It should be a fantastic game tonight. Obviously, everyone is expecting the Spartans to put up a bit more of a fight than they did earlier this season, when the Heels smacked the Spartans by 35 at Ford Field.

There were two factors in that game that will be much different tonight. For starters, Goran Suton will be in the line-up (he was out for the start of the season with knee issues). But what may have been a bigger factor was that the Spartans were playing their fourth game in seven days - they had just gotten back from the Old Spice Classic in Orlando. Tired legs and an up-and-down game are not a good combination.

The key tonight for MSU is Kalin Lucas. As good as UNC is, the one thing that they struggle against is a dynamic scoring guard. Tyrese Rice had 25 points and 8 assists when BC beat the Heels; Jeff Teague went for 34 in Wake's win. Even Marcus Thornton had 25 in LSU's second round loss to the Heels.

Lucas is not as good of a scorer as any of those three guys, but he certainly has the ability to go for 25. What may be more important than simply catching fire from the floor tonight will be Lucas's leadership. MSU can run the floor. They proved that against UConn. But they need to avoid getting into an all-out foot race against the Heels, because there is not a team in the country that can out run UNC.

So what does Sparty need from Lucas?

They need him to run the team and to be a great decision maker. If you have numbers, get out and lead the break. If there are no numbers or UNC is able to get back on D, pull the ball out and run a set. I know, it is a bit contradictory, but Lucas needs to be an aggressive scorer tonight, but he also needs to be patient run this team.

Defensively, the Spartans must slow down Ty Lawson. He has been the best player in this tournament. It isn't just his ability to lead the break that makes him so effective. Against Villanova, Lawson was able to get into the lane at will (17 FT attempts). MSU will need to stay in front of him if they want to win (side note: I'm curious to see who Izzo puts on Lawson. He had Walton defending AJ Price in the semi's, but Craig Austrie and Kemba Walker have no where near the ability of Wayne Ellington. I think you put Walton on Lawson, and take your chances with Lucas defending Ellington).

Michigan State actually matches up very well with UNC. They are more athletic, especially along the front line, where they have enough big bodies to rotate through and be physical with the Heels front line. For all that has been said about the Heels depth this season, the Spartans are deeper and have more talent coming off of their bench.

The front line is going to be so important for MSU. Villanova was able to get 19 offensive rebounds against the Heels, something the Spartans bigs are going to have to do well. Part of the reason that UNC jumped out to such a quick lead was that Nova was sending three and four guys to the offensive glass, and were then unable to get back on defense. They got to the offensive glass, but part of the reason they were able to was that UNC's guys were starting to leak out. So while the Wildcats got some second chance points, they also gave up a number of fast break baskets to the Heels.

Michigan State needs to get some offensive boards from their bigs, because they can not afford to send more than two or three guys to the offensive glass.

Many people had MSU as a Final Four pick in the preseason, before they were hit by the injury bug. A huge reason for that was because of Raymar Morgan, who is one of the best small forwards in the country ... when he is right. Against UConn, he was right, going for 18 points, 9 boards, and 5 steals. The Spartans need him to show up again tonight to win.

The bottom-line is this - UNC is the better team. They are a juggernaut, and are back to playing like they did early in the season, when people were saying that they were one of the greatest teams of all-time. At every position on the floor, UNC is more talented. If this were a seven game series, most people would probably be picking UNC in five.

But this isn't. The beauty of college basketball is that anyone can win on any given night. That is even more true with a guy like Tom Izzo running your team (anyone that watched a less-talented Spartan team dismantle UConn and Louisville in the second half will attest to that).

So what needs to happen for MSU to win? They need to slow down the Heels. Of Lawson, Ellington, Hansbrough, and Green, two of those four need to have an off-night. And the Spartans, specifically Lucas, need to be great.

It is not as far-fetched as it sounds, especially playing in front of what will probably be 65,000 State fans.

All that said, I just don't see UNC losing. My prediction: the Heels by 15.

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