With a de facto homecourt advantage going for it at Detroit's Ford Field, Michigan State looks to become the first Big Ten team to win the national championship since they themselves got it done in Indianapolis in 2000. A conference team outside East Lansing hasn't cut down the nets since Michigan won it in 1989. With that track record, the Spartans, like all Big Ten teams, have had their share of doubters all season long about their worthiness on the national stage. Regardless of what happens over the course of these next three days, those doubts should have been put to bed by the wins over Kansas and Louisville.
Those wins also capped a season of vindication for the Big Ten, that went all the way back to December and getting signature wins like Minnesota over Louisville, Michigan over both UCLA & Duke, and Illinois hammering Missouri. After a March run in which the league met or exceeded expectations (based on seeding) in every single round, and produced the champion of the NIT, no one should question the ability of any conference team to compete at the highest level.
But can Michigan State beat UConn? That's a much tougher call. Favoring Michigan State is that UConn is not appreciably better than Louisville (while the Huskies beat the Cards decisively in the regular season, they also finished behind them in the Big East standings and there has to be a reason for that). The Spartans will have the aforementioned homecourt edge. And before anyone brings up North Carolina's December hammering of MSU in this very venue, let them be reminded that Goran Suton was out that game.
On the flip side though, we have to consider that from a matchup standpoint, beating Louisville was much different than beating UConn. The Cards were a perfect matchup for Tom Izzo's team, in that once the Spartans controlled the tempo, they could get Louisville out of their element. On Saturday, UConn will be far more suited to banging in the half-court offense, with Hasheem Thabeet's force in the low post, along with Jeff Adrien who can score inside and out. A.J. Price and Kemba Walker are an adroit duo at guard and capable of disrupting an opposing offense. It has to be a sobering thought to Tom Izzo that UConn lost the turnover battle 17-6 in the regional final against Missouri and still won the game.
From a question of style and strategy, I don't see a way out for Michigan State. What they do have going for them is that UConn showed inconsistency at a lot of points in the season. The fact they did lose twice to Pitt, a team that plays very physical in the half-court game, suggests that while the Huskies have the capability to play such a style, they don't always do so. Coaching should pretty well be a wash. Both Izzo and Jim Calhoun will have their teams well-prepared and both have excelled on this stage.
In the late game, Villanova meets North Carolina, and it's a game with a similar outlook. In this case, we can expect a high-octane game. The Tar Heels, a 7-point favorite, can be best beaten in the half-court game, thanks to a tendency to get sloppy with the ball and play questionable interior defense. But the 'Cats are not the team who can exploit that. They were able to beat Pittsburgh by getting them into a faster style of play, and that won't work here.
Thus, we have two games which have fundamentally similar storylines. UConn and North Carolina are the best teams playing, and they have opponents who realistcally won't get them out of their standard gameplan. But both teams have shown tendencies to disappear and be inconsistent this year. And in the case of Michigan State, the gap between them and UConn is not nearly as large as that Villanova faces against UNC.
My heart's with the underdogs in both these games, but my head is with the favorites. At the start of the tournament, I had Michigan State reaching the final game, but I underestimated how good UConn could still be without Jerome Dyson. I look for the Huskies to meet the Heels and for Calhoun to cut down the nets a third time on Monday night.
I'll be back on Tuesday to recap the Final Four. Good luck to Michigan State!