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