Monday, April 6, 2009

National Championship Preview: North Carolina vs. Michigan State

We are finally here. The National Championship Game. The game everyone has been talking about since March Madness started. North Carolina and Michigan State were clearly two of the top teams in the country heading into the year, and they have each proven that over the past five games. One may not think that the Tar Heels and Spartans are the two best teams in the country, but they have been the best the past couple of weeks – and ultimately, that’s what matters. Hopefully, this will be the perfect climax to a Big Dance that has lacked for exciting games in the last few rounds. Enjoy the conclusion to the best three weeks in the world of sports, the NCAA Tournament.

How They Got Here

North Carolina is in the Final Four for the second consecutive season, but advanced to the title game this time, unlike when it was blown out by Kansas a year ago. The Tar Heels came into the season as the most talented team in the country, and despite a few bumps in the road along the way, they are right where they expected to be in early April. Their domination against nearly every team they have played so far in the Big Dance is indicative of how well they are playing.

Michigan State was inconsistent for much of the season, but tournament-tested Tom Izzo had the Spartans ready for the Big Dance. They barely beat USC and Kansas, but then dominated Louisville in the Elite Eight and handled Connecticut throughout the second half to advance to the championship game. They will be playing tonight at Ford Field in nearby Detroit, the site of UNC's 35-point demolition of the Spartans in early December.

Five Key Questions

1. Can North Carolina keep Michigan State off the offensive glass? The key to this game could be the backboard battle. Michigan State is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country, ranking fifth in offensive rebound percentage. On the other hand, North Carolina struggles at times to box out, giving up 19 offensive boards to Villanova on Saturday. Second-chance points and multiple opportunities are they keys to the Michigan State offensive; North Carolina has to find away to limit those.

2. How will Michigan State defend the myriad options for North Carolina? The primary worry for Michigan State will be containing Ty Lawson. Travis Walton was arguably the best defender in the Big Ten, but he might need to defend Wayne Ellington because of his size. Kalin Lucas is a very good defender, but Lawson might be too strong for him. And the frontcourt is also a problem for Michigan State. The Spartans have the depth and bodies to throw at Tyler Hansbrough, but Deon Thompson is capable of big games inside and Danny Green is tough to defend in transition.

3. Will Michigan State limit its turnovers? While North Carolina isn't a pressing team, the Tar Heels do like to provide on-ball pressure in the half-court to try to get their running game going. The Spartans ranked No. 184 in turnover percentage, and can't give North Carolina easy transition opportunities. They only had 11 turnovers against Connecticut, and need a repeat performance like that in order to win tonight.

4. Whose bench will come up bigger? Which team will have the unsung player that makes a difference? This may not seem as important as the other ones, but it is. In the championship game, players are going to have to step up in order for their team to win. Some of those unsung players are going to come off the bench. Both teams can go fairly deep down the roster. Michigan State has been getting excellent production off the pine, from guys like Draymond Green, Korie Lucious, Chris Allen and Durrell Summers. North Carolina has a future pro in Ed Davis and Bobby Frasor provides plenty of experience.

5. Who will be the go-to-guy to step up down the stretch? Neither team got to this point by riding one player. Michigan State's Kalin Lucas single-handedly led them to a comeback victory over Kansas, but Raymar Morgan is a very difficult player to defend because of his inside-outside ability. Even Goran Suton is capable of a big game. North Carolina has one of the most difficult players to defend in Ty Lawson, but Tyler Hansbrough is a handful down low and Wayne Ellington is another guy who can hit clutch shots. If it's a close game, it might come down to one player. Who will it be?

Match-up Analysis

Ty Lawson vs. Kalin Lucas: Two of the best point guards in the country go head-to-head. Both players are extraordinarily quick and don't turn the ball over very often. Lawson is a more accurate shooter and can get to the basket easier, although Lucas is no slouch in either department. Advantage: North Carolina

Wayne Ellington vs. Travis Walton: This could be a key match-up. Ellington is a fantastic shooter who can pull up in transition or hit a spot-up mid-range jumper. If he gets hot, look out. On the other side, Walton is one of the best defenders in the country and is capable of making life miserable for an opponent. Advantage: North Carolina

Danny Green vs. Raymar Morgan: Another very interesting match-up. Green has developed into an excellent three-point shooter and a lockdown defender who can do a little of everything. Morgan is an inside-outside option who has been playing well lately since recovering from walking pneumonia. Advantage: Michigan State

Deon Thompson vs. Delvon Roe: Two very talented players who are still hiding in the shadows of their more highly-touted teammates. Thompson is very solid on the offensive glass and can also defend, while Roe is athletic but inexperienced. He was beaten several times by Jeff Adrien in the semifinal. Advantage: North Carolina

Tyler Hansbrough vs. Goran Suton: This is basically going to be "Tyler Hansbrough vs. Goran Suton, Draymond Green, Idong Ibok and Marquise Gray." All four of those guys will see time, and will try to slow him down. Unfortunately, if they foul him like they did the UConn big guys, Hansbrough is an excellent free-throw shooter. Advantage: North Carolina

North Carolina Bench vs. Michigan State Bench: As mentioned before, both teams are deep on the bench, and can really bring difference-makers into the game off the pine. The Spartans have been getting key contributions during the NCAA Tournament from an assortment of players, while North Carolina sees a drop-off when going to the bench -- outside of Ed Davis. Advantage: Michigan State

Roy Williams vs. Tom Izzo: Both coaches have done great jobs this year, when it comes to juggling ample amounts of talent and keeping chemistry a positive instead of a negative. Williams is still somewhat underrated as a head coach, while Izzo is a master in March. His game-planning against Louisville and Connecticut was tremendous. Advantage: Michigan State

Who's Going to Win and Why

For everyone's sake, I hope this game is a close battle that goes down to the wire. Neither of Saturday's contests really did that, and the NCAA Tournament as a whole has not been overly exciting and filled with drama. Will we see an epic game, or a repeat of UNC's 35-point drubbing of Michigan State back in December?

I think it will be something in between. Michigan State is a different team now than they were in December: Goran Suton is healthy, Raymar Morgan is hitting his stride (although he did have 21 points and six rebounds in the first meeting), Delvon Roe has a full season under his belt, and the bench is much more comfortable. However, it is still tough to get over the fact that one team beat the other by 35 points earlier this season. Yes, it was five months ago, but some of the problems still remain.

North Carolina hit just 31.6 percent of its threes in the first game; the Tar Heels are shooting the ball much better lately and can really heat up from behind the arc with the likes of Wayne Ellington and Danny Green. The Tar Heels are playing better defense than they did earlier this year. They have held their last three opponents -- Gonzaga, Oklahoma and Villanova -- all teams held in high regard offensively -- to fewer tha 69 points per game, and forced 'Nova into tough shot after tough shot.

North Carolina simply has too many options for Michigan State. The Spartans play outstanding defense, but it remains to be seen if they can defend all the players that the Tar Heels will throw at them. Furthermore, I don't know if the Spartans can counter at that end of the floor. Outside of Morgan and Kalin Lucas, Michigan State doesn't have many consistent offensive options. Unless Suton has a big game or the Spartans receive another Herculean effort from their bench and role players, I think that North Carolina's overall talent edge and outstanding offensive ability will be the difference. Roy Williams gets his second title in the last six years.

Prediction: North Carolina 74, Michigan State 68

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