When No. 1-seed Michigan State and No. 4-seed Louisville meet in the Sweet 16 Thursday in Phoenix (7:47 p.m., TNT), something has to give.
Featuring two of the best coaches in the game in the Spartans' Tom Izzo and the Cardinals' Rick Pitino, Thursday will be a matchup between two titans of college basketball. In the last 15 years, Izzo has led Michigan State to 10 Sweet 16's, going 7-2 in the previous nine. He also is 5-0 against the Big East Conference in the NCAA Tournament. Pitino, meanwhile, boasts a perfect 9-0 record in the round of 16, including 3-0 with Louisville, and has taken three different programs to the Final Four.
On the floor, both teams hold opponents to 37.9 percent shooting, good for second in the country behind only No. 1 overall seed Kentucky. Each squad prefers to get out and run, particularly the Cardinals, who use their full-court pressure to create offensive opportunities.
So while Michigan State and Louisville look similar in many areas on paper, there's one major advantage the Spartans have over the Cardinals -- and over most teams left in the tournament, for that matter.
Michigan State has Draymond Green. Louisville does not.
The senior forward and Big Ten Player of the Year enters Thursday's game playing arguably better than anyone in the country. In the Spartans' victories over LIU Brooklyn and Saint Louis in the second and third Rounds, Green averaged 20 points, 12.5 rebounds and eight assists per game. With 24 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists against the Blackbirds, Green became just the third player in history to record multiple triple-doubles in the NCAA Tournament, joining Oscar Robertson and Earvin "Magic" Johnson.
For every problem Pitino and the Cardinals could create for Michigan State on Thursday, Green is the obvious answer. When Louisville implements a full-court defense, the 6'7" Green can use his length and passing ability to not only beat the press, but attack it. Same goes for when the Cardinals drop back into their zone, which sometimes changes to man-to-man mid-possession. With Green playing the role of coach on the floor, he'll recognize how the Spartans need to react and make sure his teammates are in the right positions.
Louisville has talented players, as well. Peyton Siva is a strong, lightning quick point guard, Kyle Kuric has the potential to go off from behind the three-point line and Gorgui Dieng is an imposing 6'11" presence in the middle. Six Cardinals average more than nine points per game, and everyone can defend.
Still, the combination of Green and the talent he has around him could prove to be too much for Louisville, because his supporting cast hasn't been bad either. Complementing Green is sophomore point guard Keith Appling, another fast point guard who loves to take the ball to the rim. There's potentially lethal shooters in senior guards Austin Thornton and Brandon Wood. And on the inside, junior center Derrick Nix and sophomore center Adreian Payne have combined to be a matchup nightmare for opponents, with Nix using his size and Payne using his athleticism to wear down other centers. Izzo's bench goes about 10-deep, and everyone understands their role.
But it all comes back to Green, who Izzo puts in a class with former point guard Mateen Cleaves when it comes to leadership and importance to a team. In 2000, Cleaves took Michigan State to its first National Championship since 1979.
Green is on a mission to do something similar, and that mission continues Thursday as he attempts to lead the Spartans to a hard-fought victory over Louisville.
Jeremy Warnemuende is the current men's basketball reporter for The State News -- Michigan State's student-run daily newspaper. This is Jeremy's second season as the men's basketball reporter, and he also has previous experience as the football reporter and the sports editor.
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