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.