North Carolina 89, Michigan State 82
For the third time less than a full year, the Spartans and Tar Heels battled in the national spotlight. And for the third time, the Tar Heels turned what was supposed to be a hard-fought battle into a one-team coronation with a convincing thrashing of a highly-ranked and highly-talented Spartan squad.
You would think losing four starters from a national title team would lead to somewhat of a “down” season. During the Roy Williams era at UNC, however, a “down” year still means a top-two finish in the ACC and a high seed in the NCAA Tournament. The only reason the Tar Heels aren’t a Top-5 team right now is a surprising early-season loss to Syracuse.
But this article isn’t meant to make people giddy about, (gasp!), back-to-back titles in Chapel Hill. This game showed us how good both the Tar Heels and Spartans are at the moment and what the (near) future could hold for both.
IMPRESSIONS – NORTH CAROLINA:
We’ll start with the blue and white clan, led by an endless bench of talented underclassmen. The Tar Heels will miss Ty Lawson at the point and Tyler Hansbrough in the paint, but not necessarily because they can’t replace that duo. Call the author crazy, but he’d rather have the plethora of big men Carolina trots out this season than the ’09 Hansbrough and company. Sophomore Ed Davis (22 points, 6 rebounds) is a star in the making and will likely join junior Deon Thompson (14 points) as a lottery pick in the 2010 NBA Draft. Throw in Tyler Zeller (6 points, 5 boards) and the Wear twins, and the Tar Heels could field an all forward and center starting five.
The above quintet leaves out the player with arguably the most potential for the Tar Heels. Freshman phenom John Henson (2 points, 4 boards, 3 blocks) resembles former Kentucky star and current Detroit Pistons forward Tayshaun Prince. The big difference is this: Prince established himself as an NBA-bound star during his senior season; Henson is just as–if not more–talented now than Prince was as a senior.
Late in the first half, Henson turned what seemed to be an uncontested baseline jumper into a rejection toward the corner. Knowing his coach–despite wearing a sling less than a week after surgery to repair a torn labrum–would chastise him for admiring the block, Henson raced toward the sideline and acrobatically saved the ball between his legs. (The fact the save went right to a Spartan who converted an easy layup is irrelevant). Henson is the diaper dandy this author is the most excited to watch grow from potential star to stud throughout the course of the season.
Lawson just might have been one of the fastest players in college basketball history, but one of his replacements, Dexter Strickland (9 points, 3 assists), isn’t more than a step behind. The freshman point guard, who plays primarily to give starting point guard Larry Drew II a rest, has the speed to blow by defenders and the outside touch to be enough of a threat to create enough space in the post for interior feeds. Drew II (18 points, 6 assists) doesn’t have the blow-by ability, but his shooting was on full display Tuesday night, lighting up the Spartans for 18 points on 6-for-7 shooting to go along with six assists.
“It’s still early, early in the season,” Williams said. “We’re not going to make too much of this game. It’s one game. It’s a big win. We’re going to love it until midnight, then we’ll start thinking about the next game we play.”
IMPRESSIONS – MICHIGAN STATE:
The Spartans, despite the final score, played a phenomenal offensive game (aside from three-point shooting) against a solid defensive team. We saw the arsenal of guards and wings and the never-give-up attitude that resembles head coach Tom Izzo’s personality. We also saw a team that, offensively, needs to hit outside shots to really open up the post.
Michigan State, coming off a game in which the Spartans made a school-record 14 three-pointers, went 2-for-20 from long distance against the Tar Heels. To put it another way, make three more of those shots to shoot a pedestrian 25 percent from beyond the arc and the Spartans win by a deuce (sure, making more triples would obviously alter the strategy of the game, but the point is made).
“I’ve said all along we’re not where those guys are yet, and I think it’s evident,” Izzo said following the game. “It’s OK to lose to them, but it’s the first time we’ve really competed in the last three games. So maybe that’s a start in the right direction, but you’ve got to win games, too. Our program’s not where theirs is, but our program’s not where there’s moral victories for being close.”
Kalin Lucas might not be the best point guard in the country, as many experts are making him out to be, but he is all guts in crunch time. He scored a meek 15 points against the Tar Heels, but–like his teammates–he was hurt by poor outside shooting in the Dean Dome. If you were trying to figure out who the midget-looking Spartan was, that is another roadrunner-type point guard. Korie Lucious might be an All-American if not for his stature (he’s listed at a generous 5-foot-10) and the fact he plays behind the reining Big Ten Player of the Year in Lucas. Lucious matched Lucas with four assists.
Wings Durrell Summers and Raymar Morgan shined in the defeat, adding 16 and 18 points, respectively. Morgan’s picture will be immortalized with this game for two separate instances. First, early in the second half, Morgan collected a pass on a 2-on-2 break before posterizing Henson with a slam dunk that energized the barely-noticeable green section in the Dean Dome.
The second instance, however, might have cost the Spartans the game. Trailing 80-74, Morgan nearly stole an inbounds pass intended for UNC’s Davis. However, exemplifying the seemingly immovable mountain the Spartans were attempting to tackle, Morgan collided with Lucas and what looked to be an easy layup to cut the lead to four turned into a 5-on-3 Carolina break, expanding the lead to eight and seizing the momentum for good.
What Michigan State lacks in the post compared to North Carolina (height and length), it makes up for in sheer grit. Delvon Roe, an Izzo recruit who chose between UNC and MSU on signing day, is a gifted power forward who uses all 6-8 of his frame. The issue for Roe comes in games like this where he’s consistently matched up with big men just as talented and taller. Roe fouled out late, but not before contributing eight points, 10 boards and two highlight-reel assists.
Draymond Green might not be the most talented player on the Spartans, but there isn’t a player who works harder. At 6-6, Green’s only downside is his size. He’s a power forward in a diminutive small forward’s body. Still, Green will outwork anyone, evidenced by his 13-point, 6-rebound game.
The Tar Heels couldn’t miss in the first half, shooting a staggering 64 percent en route to their 50-34 lead. What appeared to be a blowout in the making turned into a solid, tension-filled game down the stretch as the Spartans continued chipping away in the last five minutes. Despite shooting 43 percent, the Spartans couldn’t overcome a 2-for-20 performance from 3-point range. While the defense stepped up in the second half, the Tar Heels still shot 57 percent for the game, including 5-for-10 from long distance.
A couple bounces here or there and the Spartans walk out of North Carolina with a win and redemption for last year’s two defeats. Nevertheless, the Spartans will still use the “payback” moniker in the event of facing North Carolina in March or April.
On the other hand, the Tar Heels do what many people expect the Tar Heels to do: win. Despite playing a more controlled, slow-paced game, Williams’ team still put up 89 points. One can only imagine what happens when his players mature during the year and UNC picks up the tempo.
NCAA TOURNAMENT PROJECTIONS:
UNC: At the beginning of the season, I felt that talent plus scheduling and coaching would give the country a Final Four of Kansas, Texas, Villanova and Michigan State. At this moment, the Tar Heels have to be given serious consideration for a spot in Indianapolis. You can’t teach talent and the Tar Heels have more talent up and down the bench than any team in the country.
Kansas might have the best 1-2 punch, but North Carolina has the best 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-12 punch. The Tar Heels will be tested with a game at Kentucky later this week as well as a trip to Dallas to play a “neutral-site” game against Texas later this month but, outside of Duke, no team will come close to challenging UNC in the ACC.
MSU: The Spartans were projected to win the Big Ten, but it wasn’t unanimous. Many experts–and I agree with them–like Purdue to take the Big Ten crown because of an upperclassmen-filled starting lineup. The Spartans, however, always play big when it matters – in March, not December. Izzo will find a way to turn his lack of post size into a strength by utilizing his wings and guards more in the post.
While the Final Four still seems like a reasonable goal–as is a National Championship if the Tar Heels aren’t in the way–so many other teams have a less obvious hole. At worst, Izzo should take his squad to an Elite 8 and be a fingernail from a sixth final four in 12 seasons. However, finding that lock-down defense of Izzo’s better teams is a must. The Spartans are currently ranked around 90th in the country in defensive efficiency. The last two years MSU finished outside the Top 75, the Spartans were upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Keep an eye on that stat.