Championship Preview

Saturday’s semi-final round from Detroit was full of strategic maneuvering by Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Villanova’s Jay Wright.

Wright has been criticized by some for his decision to run with Carolina. Results notwithstanding, however, his decision is defensible. Facing the prospects of having his unimposing interior decimated by Tyler Hansbrough in a half-court game, Wright decided to roll the dice and play to his strengths by letting his guards push tempo and create in the open court.

It might have worked, or at least kept things closer, had his team not shot a woeful 5 of 27 from three-point land. Had Nova shot anywhere near their season average of 36.8%, they would have nailed four additional three-pointers, adding 12 points to their total. Something to think about, considering that they lost by 14.

Bet Michigan State vs. North Carolina

Depth was a factor here, as the fast pace of the game left Nova’s shooters with tired shooting legs down the stretch. Still, Wright’s strategy was a sound one. Overmatched as he was, he needed some luck in the form of a hot shooting night to spring the upset. He didn’t get it, but he gave his team their best possible chance to win.

Luck had very little to do with Michigan State’s win over Connecticut. Michigan State is deeper, more balanced and even more athletic than Wright’s Nova Bunch. And State’s Tom Izzo had the advantage of facing a UConn team that had a couple of weaknesses, namely transition defense and free-throw shooting, that left them vulnerable to the right team with the right plan.

Izzo had that perfect plan, and the roster to carry it out. Coming into the game, the assumption was that State, an excellent half-court team, would slow things down and run their sets against the speedy Huskies. Considering that UConn was felt by many to be one of the best half-court defensive teams in the nation, there was some concern as to whether the Spartans would be able to avoid some debilitating scoring droughts. Most predicted a low-scoring, defensive struggle (Vegas set the over/under at a relatively low 134, envisioning the teams to score in the 60’s).

Here’s where Izzo confounded conventional wisdom. Evidently sharing the concern that his team would struggle to score in a half court game, Izzo pushed the pace, allowing MSU to create in the open floor and generate some easy buckets in transition.

The decision to take their chances against UConn’s transition defense as opposed to their half-court set proved brilliant, as the Huskies big men - so menacing in the half court - struggled to keep up with the Spartan fast break.

On the defensive side of the ball, Izzo opted to put UConn, 67.8% free throw shooters as a team, on the line. He zeroed in on Hasheem Thabeet and Jeff Adrien, and they responded by shooting a combined 8 of 14 from the charity stripe. Kemba Walker, normally a 71.5% FT shooter, obliged Izzo as well by going 3 for 9. Hard to win when three of your key players are clanking 12 of 23 free throws.

Also notice that Izzo used his deep bench early to send UConn to the line without saddling any of his key players with foul trouble. Ten of Sparty’s 25 team fouls were committed by reserves who played minimally, including Idong Ibok, who committed 3 fouls in 6 minutes of play, and Draymond Green, who fouled out in 12.

So now the question arises of how Izzo will deal with North Carolina. Clearly he is a coach who is able to identify an opposing team’s weaknesses and design a gameplan to exploit them. The problem with the Tar Heels, of course, is that they have very few weaknesses, if any.

Nevertheless, we can assure that Michigan State will show up on Monday night and, quite possibly, will make this one just a little bit closer than people think.

Oddsmakers from from online sports book SBG Global have made North Carolina -7.5 point spread favorites for Monday’s game against Michigan State. Current College Basketball Public Betting Information shows that 57% of more than 1,400 bets for this game have been placed on North Carolina –7.5.

Here’s one hypothesis on how they might do it. First off, it says here that Izzo will reverse course and do everything in his power to avoid the type of up and down pace that he courted against UConn. Whereas UConn’s strength was in half-court defense, and their intimidating but relatively immobile bigs could be exploited in a speed game, the Tar Heels, big men and all, relish the opportunity to run the court. And while they are by no means a poor defensive team, UNC has nowhere near the type of shut-down half-court defense that UConn presented.

Look for Izzo to do some version on Monday of what everyone expected on Saturday- slow things down, work the half court sets, run the shot clock down and make the Tar Heels work on defense. Most college teams would run great risk of sloppy play and turnovers in executing such a plan, but Izzo’s team can do it.

The Spartans will have to hope that they can wear down the Heels in the half-court, perhaps get Hansbrough in foul trouble, and, most importantly, prevent UNC from getting into the type of speedy rhythm that Villanova allowed them to slip into.

Defensively, Michigan State cannot pursue the same fouling strategy employed against UConn, as UNC is a 75% FT shooting team. Hansbrough makes his living at the line (85%) and the primary ballhandler Ty Lawson is no slouch (79.5%).

However, the Spartans can at least hope to somewhat successfully match up against North Carolina in the half-court game. Hansbrough killed State (25 points, 11 boards, 13 for 13 FT’s) in a 35 point Tar Heel romp at Ford Field in December. One catch: Izzo’s best interior defender, Goran Suton, was out for that game. The 6-10 Suton could match up well defensively with the 6-9 Hansbrough.

There is also some hope that Kalin Lucas, the Big 10 Player of the Year, can at least slow down UNC’s Ty Lawson. While Lawson is the fastest point guard in the nation, Lucas may well be number two on that list, in addition to being an incredibly gutsy performer, at once scrappy and athletic.

Troy Walton, meanwhile, is an excellent defender who has a chance to slow down the dangerous Wayne Ellington on the wing.

Keep in mind as well that the Spartans may have an advantage of their own in the rebounding department. Villanova actually out-rebounded UNC on Saturday, 50-46, including 19 offensive boards for the Wildcats. While the Tar Heels are hardly slouches on the boards, Michigan State is an outstanding rebounding team with a chance to win that particular battle on Monday night.

Finally, it’s important to consider that Michigan State can match UNC in another area where the Heels usually reign supreme: depth. Roy Williams loves to wear opposing teams by pushing pace and using his deep bench early (see: Villanova). He won’t be about to count on much of an advantage, though, against a Spartan team that is, if anything, deeper than UNC.

So there it is for Izzo and Michigan State, the anatomy of a potential upset: 1) Slow things down, run the clock on offense in the hopes of shortening the game and frustrating UNC’s desire to run; 2) Prevent the Heels from running whenever possible (if possible) and match up defensively in the half court game; 3) Dominate the boards- one shot and one shot only for Carolina on each possession.

If Michigan State can accomplish all this, they can hope to keep the game close, lets say within ten, heading down the stretch. This will keep the partisan Spartan crowd in the game. Keep in mind- many of the Villanova and UConn fans are heading home. Their tickets for Monday night will be gobbled up by Michigan Staters. If you thought the crowd was pro MSU on Saturday, just wait until Monday.

Izzo and company will have to hope that, if they can stay with striking distance in the final minutes, the crowd will ramp things up, Carolina will start to feel the pressure, and the Spartans will find a way to steal the national championship.

One thing is for sure, if Michigan State can boil this game down to one offensive possession for a win or tie, Izzo will run a set play out of a timeout and make it happen.

Know this: Michigan State can win this game. 

But will they? At this point, it’s hard to go against Carolina. It says here, though, that MSU will keep this game much closer than many seem to think. Carolina will have to earn it down the stretch in a tough game featuring a slower tempo than they would like to see.

This Michigan State team matches up much better against Carolina than Villanova did or, for that matter, than the earlier Spartan squad that lost to the Heels by 35.

So, while the pick has to be North Carolina, if you happen to be Las Vegas, you might want to consider taking those +7.5 points (maybe more by game time) and/or taking a look at a lower scoring game that goes UNDER the posted total of 153.


Bet Michigan State vs. North Carolina

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Posted: 4/6/09 10:06AM ET

Written by: Chris Marakovitz from

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