Well, that was fast. Just nine short days ago there was talk that the Big East would put no fewer than five teams into the Elite Eight. After all, Oklahoma would surely be baffled by Syracuse's so-called "zone defense." Villanova had already shown surprising mettle in destroying UCLA and Duke. Add three one-seeds (Louisville, Pittsburgh, and Connecticut), and the only question was how many teams from the conference would make it to the national championship game: one or, more likely, two?
Alas, the Big East is done with basketball for the year, having suffered five losses in those nine days. This unanticipated quintet of losses was inflicted by the aforementioned Sooners, by the Big East itself (Villanova over Pitt), by North Carolina and, not least, by a twice-victorious team from the plodding and much maligned Big Ten.
(2) Michigan State 82, (1) Connecticut 73 [75 possessions]. There are teams that get to April because it was their trajectory all along. Then there are teams that get there because they've used the extra three weeks to improve. Michigan State falls into the latter category. Three weeks ago this team lost to Ohio State by 12 on a neutral floor. Two weeks ago they were tied with 10-seed USC with a little more than four minutes remaining. One week ago they needed last-minute heroics from Kalin Lucas to beat Kansas.
None of those Michigan State teams would have been equal to the task of beating Connecticut. Nor, for that matter, could the March version of Durrell Summers ever hope to dunk on Stanley Robinson. Last night MSU and Summers, however, made both the win and the dunk look easy.
Tom Izzo was, wisely, quite willing to go after UConn in transition. (Would you want to try to score against this front line in the half-court?) Maybe his team had to mature some more before Izzo felt comfortable turning them loose like this, because he wasn't always this willing, this season, to look for fast-break opportunities. Perhaps this will herald a new cognitive dawn not so much for MSU as for its conference: the best shot opportunities often present themselves early in the possession. On one fast break Kalin Lucas drew two eager shot-blockers and simply dished a wrap-around pass right under the rim to a wide-open Raymar Morgan. It was a great play, one that turned the Huskies' shot-blocking against them jujitsu-style.
Coming into this game I thought Michigan State's shooting from the field would be OK but not great, and that they would attempt fewer free throws than UConn. True and true. "That leaves the offensive boards," I said. To their visible frustration, the Huskies simply could not keep Izzo's men from getting second shots, as the Spartans rebounded 41 percent of their misses.
If the character of the game was foreseeable, however, its heroes were much less so. It happens every year, but every year it seems like we again need to be reminded of the possibility. An unlikely player decides to make the Final Four his own personal coming-out party. Michigan State had two such players last night in Morgan and Korie Lucious. Morgan had played just 40 minutes over the previous three tournament games, but it was clear from the start this night would be different. I think the Spartans' accelerated tempo clearly worked to Morgan's benefit, as he scored 18 points on 13 shots.
As for Lucious, the turnover-prone freshman was a tangible threat to his own team against the ball-hawking likes of Kansas and Louisville. Against a Connecticut team that simply lies back and waits to block your shot, however, Lucious was able to stay on the floor. Given that chance he sank two big first-half threes.
It was left to UConn to try to keep up by scoring enough points on a night when Travis Walton was, predictably, removing A.J. Price from the Huskies' offense. Indeed, any time Price was guarded by someone not named Walton, his eyes lit up and he immediately tried to take that person off the dribble. As it happened, however, the results against the non-Waltons were not really that great. In fact, by late in the second half, Price had earned the ultimate indignity and was no longer regarded by Michigan State as Walton-worthy. The MSU senior had been pulled off of Price and was guarding Robinson.
Price's struggles meant there was more pressure on the big guys down low. Jeff Adrien sank some nice running hooks from the paint but he couldn't do it alone. The number of points that Hasheem Thabeet scores, for example, is a function of how many times he's given the ball directly under the basket. On offense Thabeet appears to have an effective range of about five feet. If he's that close to the rim, he can score. If he's not, chances aren't so good. On two first-half possessions he tried to score from outside that radius. I winced both times as the shot was released, and both times I was right to wince.
Michigan State will now face North Carolina for the national championship, playing in the same NFL stadium where the Tar Heels beat the Spartans by 35 in December. Carolina would do well to forget that game, however. This is April, and State just keeps getting better with every game they play.
(1) North Carolina 83, (3) Villanova 69 . North Carolina puts such pressure on an opponent to perform at the very top of its game that those opponents all start to look alike. To wit, Villanova looked a lot like Oklahoma in this game, stylistic differences be damned. Like the Sooners last week, the Wildcats looked disjointed and frenetic. In fact, I didn't recognize this team. These were not the same Wildcats that euthanized UCLA and demoralized Duke.
It's a compliment to the Tar Heels that they can be down a starter (Marcus Ginyard) and indeed can even look a little disjointed themselves for much of the second half--and still win a Final Four game by 14 points. When the Tar Heels make half their threes, as they did last night (11-of-22), the window for winning a game against this team narrows to something like Villanova-in-1985 width: you better make 70 percent of your shots from the field.
Threes weren't the only factor propelling the Heels to their fifth consecutive double-digit win in the tournament. Roy Williams' team shot no fewer than 37 free throws, with fully 29 of those being attempted by Ty Lawson and Tyler Hansbrough. (Lawson uncharacteristically missed seven of his freebies, or else the final score would have been even more decisive.) Giving too many free throws to the opponent has been a recurring malady for the Wildcats over the past two seasons. They were the most foul-happy team in the Big East in 2008 and, while Jay Wright's team made strides here this season, the Wildcats still ranked fourth in the league in this dubious measure in 2009. Indeed a surplus of free throws very nearly allowed Pitt to advance to Detroit in Villanova's stead. Job one for any North Carolina opponent is to keep the Heels off the free throw line. 'Nova failed to do so.
This game opened with North Carolina in full pitiless-machine mode, as the Heels ripped off 31 points in just ten minutes, thanks in large part to excellent outside shooting from Wayne Ellington. Villanova managed but one response, pulling to within five with two minutes gone in the second half. Then Danny Green hit a three and Lawson scored in transition. From that point forward the lead was never again in single digits.
The fact that the Wildcats went 5-of-27 on their threes certainly didn't help matters. Carolina's last two opponents are now a combined 7-of-46 from beyond the arc. That's mostly the opponents' doing, of course, but carefully measuring out praise and blame is beside the point in April, when the only honor worth earning is survival.
All praise to the two survivors, Michigan State and North Carolina.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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