Monday, April 06, 2009

BLUE HEAVEN AGAIN! Tar Heels Take 5th Championship

North Carolina Tar Heels (34-4) 89, Michigan State Spartans (31-7) 72

Two teams met on the court Monday night, but one, the North Carolina Tar Heels, was clearly superior.

North Carolina rolled out to a 17-7 lead, hitting 6 of their first seven shots including 2 3-pointers and 3 of 4 free throws. Then, the Tar Heels went on a 6-1 run to lead 24-8, and expanded on that, leading by 20 or more for most of the first half. North Carolina's 55-34 lead at the break was the largest lead and highest first half point total in a championship game.

Michigan State could just not stay with the kids from the Carolinas. Wayne Ellington scored 17 first-half points, on 7 of 9 shooting, hitting all three of his 3-point attempts. Carolina was 15 of 19 from the charity stripe. In the first half, Ty Lawson tied the championship game record of 7 steals for a full game. The rout was on, and only a miracle could keep prevent the Tar Heels from their fifth national championship, and the Spartans were all out of those.

Having beaten two #1 seeds already, they found the third time more harmful than charming, as the Tar Heels maintained a double-digit lead the rest of the way. The spartans cut it to 13 points with under five minutes to play, but their 21 turnovers really hut them and they could not match North Carolina's size, speed and play in the paint, where the Heels were just plain kickin' it.

Ty Lawson, who set a new NCAA championship game record with 8 steals, led all scorers with 21 points, followed by Ellington's 19 and 18 by Tyler Hansbrough.

Ed Davis and Deon Thompson chipped in 11 and 9, respectively. For coach Roy Williams, his second national championship in six years at North Carolina was a testament to his outstanding coaching ability.

The Tar Heels were widely believed the team to beat even before the season began, and that prognosis proved true. North Carolina won the championship game by nearly the average margin they had won their first five tournament games, 21 points, showing that they were not only championship quality but truly among the elite teams of all time. Truly, throughout the 6 games, they were never really tested, except in the second round, when they were down by 1 to LSU with 5 minutes left, but won that game by 12.

They may have won the title in the city of Detroit, but nothing could be finer than to be from Carolina this time.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

National Championship Analysis: Tar Heels vs. Spartans

Here we go with the final game of the 2008-09 college hoops season with the National Championship game Monday night at Ford Field in detroit, Michigan, pitting the Michigan State Spartans against the North Carolina Tar Heels. Tip time is 9:21 pm EDT.

North Carolina Tar Heels (33-4) (-7 1/2, 152 1/2) Michigan State Spartans (31-6)
How they got here (all stats for NCAA tournament only):
Michigan State beat Robert Morris, 77-62; USC, 74-69; Kansas 67-62; Louisville, 64-52; Connecticut, 82-73.
North Carolina beat Radford, 101-58; LSU, 84-70; Gonzaga, 98-77; Oklahoma, 72-60; Villanova, 83-69.

Average Points Scored
Michigan St.: 72.8
North Carolina: 87.6

Average Points Allowed:
Michigan St.: 63.6
North Carolina: 66.8

Average Margin of Victory:
Michigan St.: 9.2
North Carolina: 20.8

Just looking at the raw numbers, it's easy to see how the oddsmakers have the Tar Heels installed as 7 1/2-point favorites. If they play as they have, on average, Michigan State will score 69.8 points against North Carolina, but the Tar Heels will put in 75.7 points, so we come up with a final score of 76-70, in favor of North Carolina, meaning that the Tar Heels capture the national title, but don't cover the spread. Also, the number (146) falls short of the over/under of 152 1/2.

In the parlance of Las Vegas, this is called hedging. The Tar Heels maybe should only be favored by 6 points, and the O/U lower by 6 1/2, but owing to the idea that more people will bet the favorite, they're going to pay a premium. Those betting that Michigan State either wins or covers get an additional 1 1/2-point boost in their wager. Naturally, 1 1/2 points is nothing in a college basketball game, but the Las Vegas sharpies who calculate these things are uncanny at getting the final result right.

Further, since there are going to be more people betting on Carolina, their hope is that the Spartans pull off the upset, becaue the money line is massively tilted toward a North Carolina victory. You have to put up 360 to make 100 on a flat bet (no points) on the Tar Heels, though you could put up 100 to make 300 making a similar wager on Michigan State. Essentially, Vegas is saying that North Carolina is a 3-1 favorite, which, as most of us already know, is a pretty heavy choice.

How Carolina wins is pretty understandable. First, there's history. Earlier this season, the two teams met at the very same site, Ford Field, with Carolina romping to a 98-63 win. It was Carolina's 8th game of the season, Michigan State's 6th.

Two items stand out from that encounter. Kalin Lucas, Michigan State's point guard, scored 6 points and dished 5 assists. He's arguably a better player now than he was then, but by how much? Playing opposite Ty Lawson, who is possibly the best point guard in the nation, Lucas can't be expected to fare that much better in the final. Give him 15 points and 8 assists, and it's still a 24-point win for Carolina.

The second point is that Goran Suton, Michigan State's steady center, did not play. Suton is good for at least 12 points and 10 rebounds, even against the mighty Tar Heels. Those numbers are a little better than his season average, so give the Spartans another 12 points, plus 4 more due to the additional board strength. That still leaves Michigan State on the short end of the score by 8, which means there is hardly any way the Spartans can win this game, unless...

Draymond Green, a 6'6" freshman who plays bigger, and Delvon Roe, a 6'8" frosh, can contribute more on both ends of the floor. This is likely, since neither of them scored a single point in that December pasting, though Roe was fairly productive in his 26 minutes, with 8 boards, 3 assists and 3 blocks. Green played all of 6 minutes and fouled out. That's unlikely to happen again, considering the additional time both players are likely to see in the final.

Michigan State got an incredible 33 points from its bench in their semifinal win over UConn, many of those on layups and dunks in the fast break. will the Spartans actually try to outrun the Tar Heels. They just might, as it seems to be one way to get some quick scores and settle in on defense, which is the heart of Michigan State success.

With that in mind, the big stat - which probably won't come into play here, though it might - is that the Spartans are 30-0 when holding their opponent to less than 70 points. Of North Carolina's four losses, the lowest point total was 70, against Florida State in the ACC tournament. In the other three, they scored 75, 78 and 89. If North Carolina pours in 80 or more, their chances of winning are enormous, because Michigan State has only topped that number 4 times, the last just two days ago. The Spartans can score, but the Tar Heels - for all intents and purposes - can score more, so the idea of running on them sounds more like suicide than success.

Michigan State will throw more players into the mix, that's a given, but, even though those players may have fresh legs, they probably won't have much impact against North Carolina's impressive offense, which can hurt teams on the inside or out, with heft in the middle and gunners on the wings. Unless Michigan State comes up huge, or the Carolina kids have an off night shooting, this one looks like a pretty big win for the Tar Heels.

The other factor which may come into play is the fact that it's a virtual home game for Michigan State. Whether that matters much or at all remains to be seen. The Tar Heels are battle-tested and enjoy advantages in many aspects of the game - size, experience, three-point shooting, among the top reasons. Ty Lawson at the point and Tyler Hansbrough in the post are WMBs - Weapons of Monstrous Ballin' - who are unlikely to be denied.

Michigan State has provided some of the tournament's best moments in the regionals and semifinals, taking out the best teams from the Big East - Louisville and Connecticut - while the Tar Heels disemboweled Villanova. It's interesting, that for all the Big East hype all season long, none of their teams are represented in the national championship game. It's Big Ten vs. ACC.

One final word about this game needs to be mentioned. This North Carolina team may be one of the best ever, rivaling the great Michael Jordan-Sam Perkins-James Worthy era. If they win this game, which they should, will we someday come back to look at this national championship and say, "Wow, Ty Lawson, Tyler Hansbrough and Wayne Ellington all on the same team?" Maybe. I count as many as seven potential NBA players on the North Carolina roster right now, and there may be more. Danny Green, who has come through big during the tournament run, is not the most overlooked player on this squad, at least not now. That award would go to Deon Thompson, the 6'8" junior foward who's in on every loose ball, banging in the middle with the giants of every team, quietly doing all the little things like boxing out, swatting away shots and providing backside defense without any acclaim. He and Green make this team special.

North Carolina will win handily.

PREDICTION: North Carolina 84 Michigan State 71

Saturday, April 04, 2009

It's Spartans vs. Tar Heels for the National Championship!

In college basketball, coaching matters. Having either more contributors or just better players also makes a difference. But both Michigan State and North Carolina made it though the meat-grinder that is the NCAA tournament largely because the respective coaches - Michigan State's Tom Izzo and North Carolina's Roy Williams - have been there before, guiding their youthful charges to overcome the hype, media, fans, confusion and pressure that are obstacles along the way to achieving the lofty goal of one shining moment.

What began more than a fortnight ago with 65 teams, has now been whittled down to just two. Here's how each team fared in their last outing. More detailed analysis will follow tomorrow in anticipation of the national title game.

(2) Michigan State 82, (1) Connecticut 73
ESPN Box Score

The stats don't like for the Spartans. They are simply unbeatable (30-0) when holding opponents under 70 points, and while this one doesn't qualify technically, it had all of the earmarks of a Michigan State, defense-first victory. The game was, as are many of the Spartans wins of this 2008-09 vintage, closely played, with neither team able to gather an advantage though the first half, which ended with Michigan State up by 2 points, 38-36.

Michigan State took control early in the second half, when consecutive layups by Kalin Lucas and Chris Allen gave the Spartans a 53-49 lead with just over 13 minutes left. After that, they would never trail or be tied again. Failure to hit anything from the perimeter by the Huskies allowed Michigan State defenders to pack the lane and make entry passes difficult for UConn. As usual, every shot was contested, and as the Huskies struggled for offense, the Spartan lead expanded to 8, then 10, then finally, 11, on Raymar Morgan's dunk at 3:21.

Morgan was one of the difference-makers for Michigan State, scoring 18 points and 9 boards, his best outing in the tournament. Lucas led all scorers with 21. The Spartans got an incredible 33 points from their bench. In the basketball world of Tom Izzo, it's still a team game. Everybody plays, and that was one of the most decisive aspects of this win. The Connecticut players were simply outmanned in the end as Izzo shuffled players in and out of the game throughout.

(1) North Carolina 83, (3) Villanova 69
ESPN Box Score

In stark contrast to the first game, North Carolina's explosive offense made this one rather one-sided right away, establishing a big early lead, hitting 10 f their first 15 shots, 3 of them from beyond the arc. Less than 10 minutes in, it was 26-12 and the Tar Heels just continued to roll along. Villanova eventually cut the lead down to 9 at the break, and to 5 early in the second half, but North Carolina responded to the challenge and played at a high tempo throughout.

While the tar Heels raced up and down and around the Wildcats, Villanova could not buy a bucket, especially from three-point range, where they hit just 4 of 28. By comparison, the Tar Heels were more efficient, nailing 11-22 threes.

Wayne Ellington and Danny Green were the deadliest bombers for Carolina. Green hit 4 of 10, while Ellington splashed 5 of 7. Ty Lawson was the game's high scorer, with 22 points; Tyler Hansbrough had his second double-double of the tournament, scoring 17 points and pulling down 11 rebounds.

Friday, April 03, 2009

Final Four Analysis (Part 2) North Carolina vs. Villanova

Final Four Game 2, Saturday, April 4, 2009
Ford Field, Detroit, MI

(1) North Carolina (32-4) (-7, 158 1/2) (3) Villanova (30-7) 8:47 pm - The dark horse from the Big East, Villanova, is also possibly the most balanced and talented team overall from the conference. It's fitting that they'll face off with North Carolina, as both teams possess very subtle, but important similarities. Both teams are solid in the backcourt, strong up front, rebounds well and has no single player without which they cannot survive, though it could be argued that if Carolina is without either point guard Ty Lawson or forward Tyler Hansbrough, or the Wildcats are missing Dante Cunningham or Scottie Reynolds, their games would suffer on both ends.

So, there are the first and second similarities, at point guard and strong forward, where the Tar Heels seem to have edges. While Reynolds is as fine a point guard as can be found, Lawson is simply extraordinary, a gifted ball-handler with speed and quickness that has yet to be matched in this tournament. Where Reynolds evens things out, however, is in the strength department. Lawson probably won't be able to handle Reynolds man-to-man, and that could cause trouble for North Carolina. It's easy to see how both point guards will be able to penetrate into the lane and raise havoc. In that regard, the matchup becomes a draw.

In the power forward area, Tyler Hansbrough has a heft advantage over Cunningham. He is the more physical of the two, though Cunningham has better range and is quicker on his feet, so once again, the edge, if there is one, is marginal. Both players can play to their strengths within the offense. Look for Cunningham to set up either at the foul line or on the wing away from the basket. From either of those positions, he can either aid the offense with ball movement and screens or, should he so choose, shoot over Hansbrough while also drawing him away from the basket.

When Hansbrough is on offense, he'll want to be active in the low post, where he can hope to overpower his opponent for layups and dunks or feeds to his teammates for the same.

Cunningham will stand his ground, though he's not going to get a whole lot of help from teammates, and Carolina can also go very large, inserting either of their big freshmen, 6'10" Ed Davis or 7'0" Tyler Zeller. 6'8 Deon Thompson starts and plays much bigger. Compare those beasts with what Villanova puts on the floor. Cunningham is 6'8", Dwayne Anderson checks in at 6'6", and sub Shane Clark is 6'7". Also crashing the board will be Reggie Redding, who goes 6.5", but the Tar Heels have an obvious height edge in the lane.

A wild card in this game, as he usually is, is Danny Green, who lit up Oklahoma for 18 points in the Tar Heels' 72-60 win. Green is a do-it-all kind of player who will stick his nose in anywhere, can get out on the break, hit jumpers and rebound with the big boys. His counterpart on the Wildcats is Anderson, who has had some big games during the tournament, is seasoned and capable of guarding the best athletes on the floor. Again, whatever advantage North Carolina has with Green, it is offset by the defensive abilities by the corresponding Villanova player.

If there's an edge in terms of coaching, it has to go to Roy Williams, who is making his 7th appearance in the Final Four and has a championship ring, earned in 2005 with the Tar Heels. Villanova coach Jay Wright is the only coach in the Final Four (his first) without an NCAA championship. Williams has an experience edge. Wright will get some here.

In the final analysis, North Carolina looks indomitable on the inside and, with Lawson healthy, he's going to be difficult for even Reynolds to contain. The overall size and depth of the Tar Heel bench, plus the smarts of coach Williams makes North Carolina the team most likely to advance. Villanova's defense and heart will keep them in the game and not allow the Tar Heels to establish a huge runaway lead, but down the stretch, North Carolina has the players who can come up with the really big plays in Lawson, Hansbrough and Green. They're no lock to cover the spread, which will probably come down to the final minutes and free throws vs. three-pointers, but they seem capable of prevailing. The Over/Under is an equally risky proposition, as the oddsmakers seem to have that number nailed.

PREDICTION: North Carolina 85 Villanova 75

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Final Four Analysis (Part 1) Michigan St. vs. Connecticut

Final Four Game 1, Saturday, April 4, 2009
Ford Field, Detroit, MI

(1) Connecticut (31-4) (-4, 131 1/2) (2) Michigan State (30-6) 6:07 pm - Hoops fans could not have asked for a more balanced Final Four, with two teams from the nation's best conference, the Big East, and one each from the Big Ten and ACC. Interestingly, two of the three Big East #1 seeds did not make it to Detroit, as Louisville - the #1 overall seed - and Pitt were ousted in their respected regional finals. However, Villanova picked up the Big East slack, by beating Pitt but still representing the conference.

In the matchup between UConn and Michigan State, the player which stands out most prominently is the Huskies' 7'3" man in the middle, Hasheem Thabeet, who is a terror to anyone who dares drive to the tin, swatting away would be layups with alarming regularity. Keeping Thabeet out of foul trouble will be coach Jim Calhoun's main concern. For Tom Izzo, finding a way around, over or through the big guy is the challenge.

Izzo used an interesting ploy in his win over Louisville, spotting his own big man, Goran Suton, at the high post offensively. Suton responded with key jumpers, three of them 3-pointers, four assists and 10 boards (4 offensive). He proved to be the absolute key to beating the Cardinals by sticking to the coach's plan and executing to perfection. Should Izzo determine to employ the same tactic, Connecticut will be not caught unaware. They can either choose to send Thabeet out to play man-to-man on Suton, though that would open up the inside, where Michigan's slashers and drivers, particularly point guard Kalin Lucas and Raymar Morgan (shut out against the Cardinals) might just find a happy place in the lane.

Calhoun has other options, however, one being keeping Thabeet in the low post and putting the more athletic Stanley Robinson on Suton to limit his effectiveness by contesting his shots or denying him the ball. Robinson is a good match for Suton, being just an inch shorter than the 6'10" Spartan.

Besides Suton, Michigan State has some limitations when it comes to offense, though the play of Lucas during the late regular season and into the post-season has been a real boost for Michigan State. He is speedy and a deft ball-handler, though he's prone to hoisting treys more often than coach Izzo might like. Almost as comic relief, Lucas has been hitting at a respectable 40% during the tournament, including 2-of-4 against Louisville.

The other Spartan player who's been a boost during the tournament is Durrell Summers, who filled in the scoring nicely over the past three games, scoring 11 against USC, 9 against Kansas and 12 against the cardinals. His contribution and ability to bury a number of treys (4 of 6 during the tournament) will be another key to Michigan State's success.

For the Huskies, they cannot rely heavily upon Thabeet for scoring because he does so much work on defense, though sending the ball into the low post and trying to get Suton in foul trouble is a ploy Calhoun no doubt has under consideration. The bulk of the scoring will come from A.J. Price (averaging 20 ppg in the NCAAs), point guard Kemba Walker (who exploded for 23 against Missouri) and Robinson (15 ppg). Craig Austrie has been inconsistent, missing all 6 of his three-point attempts in the Huskies' opener against Chattanooga, but going 3-for-3 beyond the arc and scoring 17 points against Purdue.

Getting points against the stingy Spartan defense will not be easy for Connecticut. All of their players are hard-nosed defenders, and Lucas is probably a bit of an overmatch for Walker at the point. Though Walker should hold his own, don't expect him to blow by Lucas more than a couple times. The Michigan State point guard is the embodiment of quickness and speed.

If the pace of the game is to Michigan's liking, forcing the Huskies to work hard for every basket, they may be able to get out on the break on a number of occasions. Suton is especially good at getting up and down the floor in a hurry, while Thabeet is not. Expect the Michigan State big man to be on the receiving end of a number of passes to the post or the happy trailer on the break.

The real kicker in this game is UConn's Jeff Adrian and his ability to hit jumpers from inside 15 feet. When he's on, the Huskies are virtually unbeatable. When he's not, which is often enough to raise concerns, UConn is vulnerable.

If there is one big key or stat it's this: Michigan is 30-0 when holding opponents under 70 points. While Connecticut can generally put up 75 points or more, they do have 9 wins (and 3 losses) when they have scored in the 60s, so they are capable of playing the defense-first game as well. It would not be a surprise for the Huskies to score 65 points and win, though a final score in that range surely works in Michigan State's favor.

Both coaches have been here before, and Calhoun has a pair of championship rings to Izzo's one, so there's no advantage when it comes to sideline smarts. Bottom line, this could go either way. Giving Michigan State points at this juncture might just be a mistake, as they've turned back the critics with crisp play thus far and have shown incredible heart and desire, key factors in tournament play. Take the points and hope nobody scores for the first five minutes. That will help Michigan State's confidence.

PREDICTION: Michigan State 67 Connecticut 63

Tomorrow: Part 2: Villanova vs. North Carolina