The old adage says that everything happens for a reason. Luckily for college basketball fans, we only have to wait until Monday night.
As the clock struck midnight Saturday on Big East powerhouses Connecticut and Villanova, it became an instant revelation that America would witness the highly anticipated re-match between North Carolina and Michigan State. Just four months ago, the Tar Heels steamrolled into Detroit on Dec. 3 and shellacked State by 35 points, the program's most lopsided loss since 1996. This time around, Tom Izzo and Co. are determined and motivated to prove that they belong on the same floor.
Despite winning the Big Ten regular season title and placing as high as fifth in the polls this year, Sparty came into March Madness with little expectations from the general population. In fact, only 25 percent of ESPN.com Tournament Challenge entrants had MSU in the Final Four.
However, just like the little engine that could, State keeps chugging along. First, the experts said they couldn't beat Kansas twice in the same season. Then, they weren't athletic or offensively skilled enough to hang with Louisville. And most recently, they weren't big and strong enough to bang down low with the "bruising" Connecticut front court. Talk about silencing the critics.
Still, State is a monumental underdog against a Tar Heel squad equipped with nine high school All-Americans and at least three future lottery picks. Carolina is the best offensive team in the nation by far and they have incredible equilibrium of perimeter shooting and low post finesse. Mainstream media continues to praise UNC and deems them the best team since the UNLVs and Dukes of the early 90s. So the Heels are going to run Sparty out of the building, right?
Not this time.
For as great as North Carolina is (I wrote this past December that when they're healthy, they are hands down the best team in the country), there is something special about this bunch from East Lansing. Something "Magical" you could say. Something I didn't fully appreciate until I witnessed them completely exploit two of the tournament's four No. 1 seeds. In watching film and studying State's last two games, it became apparent how relentless they truly are in terms of getting to the glass and playing the type of physical defense that goes hand-in-hand with the blue collar toughness of Detroit. MSU's toughness and brute force down the stretch wore down the Cardinals and Huskies, allowing Sparty to pull away around the eight minute mark in both games. And with the best Xs and Os coach in the country on the side of the green and white, it's very hard for me to picture the colossal blowout that most of the pundits are predicting.
I implore you to discount the December meeting as it means absolutely nothing to Monday's contest. You can throw all this 35-point nonsense out the window as Michigan State playing with a banged up Delvon Roe and without Goran Suton is like eating cereal without milk -- it's passable, but you wouldn't wish it upon your worst enemy. Tyler Hansbrough and Deon Thompson had their way with the depleted MSU frontcourt, one that saw Draymond Green and Marquise Gray seeing the majority of the minutes. No offense to them, but these guys are role players, not players that should be expected to guard the reigning Player of the Year and the most improved big man in the ACC. These mismatches opened up the floodgates for the drive-and-kicks to Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green and it continued to plunge downhill from there.
Fast forward to today, where you insert a healthy Suton and the most efficient Roe we've seen all year long, making this an entirely different ballgame. Need I remind you that Michigan State is the best rebounding team in the nation? Or how about how they outworked and outhustled Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien on the boards? MSU's ability to win the rebounding battle is crucial if they want any shot at striking down Goliath.
In order to be crowned national champions, State has to accomplish three things: win the aforementioned battle on the glass, slow down the pace of the game and have the discipline to take good shots to prevent Carolina from getting easy looks in transition. Knowing full well what the Heels are capable of on the break, you have to believe Tom Izzo has the perfect gameplan mapped out in his mind. Not that Roy Williams is a slouch, but since Izzo's bunch won their last three games with three different styles of basketball, I'll give the coaching advantage to Sparty.
Also, bench points will be huge as Michigan State is able to comfortably give its starters a breather since its supporting cast is filled with players that can knock down big shots. Durrell Summers, Chris Allen and Korie Lucious have all had their shining moments this postseason and they anchor an impressive bench, one that outscored Connecticut 33 to 7 just two days ago.
If I were a betting man, it'd be hard to shy away from the eight points that Vegas will be giving MSU backers by tip-off. Carolina comes into the championship having won every single game by double digits, although none were really that close. UNC's first two games were a joke, Gonzaga is a mid-major hack and Oklahoma and Villanova completely shot themselves out of contention. State, on the other hand has been in three dogfights in which pinpoint execution was a must. They've been battle tested all tournament and have excelled in all facets of the game.
"So the Heels are going to run Sparty out of the building, right? Not this time."
State needs to control the pace of this ball game and not let it turn into the Indianapolis 500. If Carolina gets out in transition time and time again, I agree this one could get real ugly, real fast. But I know that Izzo knows that his guys need to be smart with the basketball and take efficient shots in order to slow down the Carolina Express. Izzo is renowned for running the best offensive sets in the half-court game. And State can shoot it from deep too, let's not discount that. The Spartans are 22-0 this season when they shoot 30 percent or better from three.
From a defensive standpoint, slowing down Lawson, Hansbrough and Ellington is going to be an extremely difficult task as these three players are as skilled and seasoned as any collegiate players in the past five years. But don't underestimate the speed and playmaking abilities of Kalin Lucas, the superior interior defense of Suton and Roe, and the hard-nosed, intensified defense of Travis Walton, who will be responsible for disrupting Ellington's sweet stroke. Let's not forget that Walton's defensive assignments against Sherron Collins, Terrence Williams and A.J. Price/Kemba Walker were easily the deciding factors in State's victories over Kansas, Louisville and UConn respectively.
Michigan State is the toughest team I've seen in years and they never, ever give up. Knowing that they are workaholics on defense and they rarely make bad decisions with the rock, I believe they have a realistic chance to hoist the trophy in their home state in front of the largest crowd in Final Four history. MSU is playing its best basketball of the season at the perfect time and how fitting that the title game is in Detroit, where upwards of 50,000 green and white clad fans will make for the most hostile environment Carolina has seen all year. Sparty has been the underdog since the Sweet 16, but they've continued to rise to the challenge and play perfect basketball when it matters most.
Keep doubting the Spartans folks, it'll only make this extremely underrated underdog bark louder and bite harder.