It's been three years--a college basketball eternity--since we had a non-one-seed in the national championship game. Not that a two-seed like Michigan State is this year's George Mason, or anything.
(2) Michigan State vs. (1) North Carolina
9:21 PM ET
Having won for themselves the opportunity to play five additional games since the Big Ten tournament, the Spartans have seized on those extra 200 minutes and improved dramatically.
How? That's easy. They've stopped turning the ball over, coughing it up just 62 times in 331 tournament possessions. That, plus some rare but accurate three-point shooting from Durrell Summers and Kalin Lucas, has triggered all this fuss. The MSU defense is great, yes, but keep in mind it was this good all year. By itself, it wouldn't have been enough to get them to tonight's game. To make it this far Tom Izzo needed more offense. He got it.
This kind of dramatic improvement was pretty much what Florida exhibited over the course of the 2006 tournament, and keep in mind the Gators that year were but a lowly three-seed. Billy Donovan's first national championship team prevailed against what the numbers would suggest was a relatively weak one-seed (Villanova) in the Elite Eight, then never saw another opponent seeded on the top line.
The Spartans, conversely, are about to play their third consecutive one-seed. They've earned their place in the national championship game, to say the very least. I expect Izzo's team will be able to do business on the offensive glass. If they could do so against Connecticut they can do so against North Carolina.
Then again I wouldn't be shocked to see the Heels grab a few offensive boards themselves. Lost in the home-state euphoria and the "best rebounding team in the nation" talk (a meaningless label based on rebounding margin, a meaningless stat) has been the fact that during the tournament the only facet of Michigan State's game that has dropped off has been its defensive rebounding, which has actually fallen off rather severely. Partly this is function of playing against top competition, of course, but that's precisely my point. Tonight's opponent is top competition.
North Carolina entered the year as the preseason No. 1 and they're 40 minutes away from leaving it with that same ranking. True, the Tar Heels' season included more losses than was expected, but here they are playing on a Monday night in April as the favorites. That much was expected.
Carolina's strength is its ability to direct possessions through the player being guarded by the opponent's third- or even fourth-best defensive player. It's rarer than you might think for a college offense to have this capability; when they do--e.g., Florida in 2007, Illinois in 2005--the results are pretty spectacular.
The Heels have that ability. Deon Thompson has had a wretched tournament on offense, but quite literally everywhere else you look on the floor, you'll find UNC players who will take over the game if they need to.
To the extent that the strikingly balanced Carolina offense has had a featured player in the tournament, it's actually been Wayne Ellington, who's taken one in every four of his team's shots from the field during his minutes over the last five games. If anything he should shoot more, having made 48 percent of his threes and 59 percent of his twos during UNC's run to the championship game.
Ellington will likely be guarded tonight by designated shutdown artist Travis Walton, which is fine for Michigan State as far as it goes--Walton is outstanding at what he does. (Ask Terrence Williams or A.J. Price.) Problem is, this is North Carolina. Let's say for the sake of discussion Walton just removes Ellington entirely from the game. Fine. Now you have sophomore Kalin Lucas guarding senior Ty Lawson. Roy Williams will take that.
Speaking of things Williams likes, Tyler Hansbrough could be well situated for an appropriately prominent role in his last game. Hansbrough has actually had a relatively quiet tournament from the field, making exactly half his twos. His strength, however, has been what it's always been, getting to the line and knocking down the freebies. With their frontcourt depth, the Spartans have never been particularly squeamish about fouling. That's fine with the Heels. They'll gladly take their points one at a time.
There. That's my preview of what might occur this evening. Now, allow me a word on a more speculative matter. It's about tempo.
I know you've heard that Michigan State must slow the game down if they're to have any chance against North Carolina. You've heard it, heard it some more, and then heard it again for good measure.
It's rare that I get to say something this cut-and-dried, but Ken Pomeroy has supplied me the means in this instance, so indulge me:
What you've heard is dead wrong.
Michigan State would have nothing to fear from a faster pace tonight, provided they held on to the ball. Remember this: The longer a Spartan possession goes into the shot clock, the more time there is for someone in green to commit a turnover. (Particularly if Korie Lucious is in the game. Hi-yo!)
I'm not saying Izzo will actually try to run tonight, of course. (Though Kalin Lucas certainly wants a green light.) I'm just saying he would be perfectly justified if he chose to--assuming, again, that his team is able to take care of the ball while running. Throughout the Lawson/Hansbrough era, the UNC offense has been notably more efficient following a dead ball--whether off an opponent's made shot from the field, a free throw or anything else that would trigger an ensuing Carolina inbounds play--than the Heels have been when attempting to simply run off a defensive rebound.
To Carolina fans, the good news is that their team has shown beyond a doubt they can win games at any pace. True enough: How many times have you seen an opponent doggedly "slow the game down" against the Tar Heels, then get stomped anyway? Speaking only for myself, I've seen it quite often, perhaps most memorably in UNC's 21-point win against Washington State in last year's Sweet 16.
Limiting North Carolina to a half-court game is hardly a guarantee of victory. If anything it's just the opposite.
If I were Izzo facing my team in the locker room before tonight's game, however, I'd be tempted to draw more of an emperor-lacking-clothes conclusion from this same information. We're deeper than they are. We're more athletic than they are. (Bobby Frasor?) Let's go run them into the hardwood for 40 minutes. Then come meet me at center court and we'll all put on some nifty ball caps. Who's with me?
Not that it will happen, of course. One of these days, though, a coach is going to run against a running team and the world will be shocked. It will come to pass, and sooner than you think.
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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