Four ways Michigan St. upsets UNC

Monday, April 6, 2009

Reader poll

Who are you cheering for in the national championship game?

  • Michigan State 74% 315 votes
  • North Carolina 16% 71 votes
  • Undecided 8% 37 votes

423 total votes.

— I have a theory about upsets: They usually aren’t as big as we think they are. One team gets overhyped. The other team, the underdog, is outstanding, but people don’t realize it yet.

We’re going to keep that in mind here as we ask the essential question leading up to tonight’s national championship:

How can Michigan State win?

We know it can. We don’t know if it will — this is not a prediction. Here are four reasons to believe.

•1. Talent

There is a perception that North Carolina is a much more talented team than Michigan State. I’ll grant you more, but not much more.

I don’t see a single Tar Heel starter who is a sure starter on an NBA playoff team. Power forward Tyler Hansbrough is undersized and under-athletic by NBA standards. Point guard Ty Lawson is quick and gifted, but he is 5-foot-11. There aren’t many 5-11 guys leading NBA contenders.

Wayne Ellington and Danny Green will be NBA players, but probably not great ones. The best UNC pro prospect may be freshman Ed Davis. But he plays 19 minutes per game.

MSU doesn’t have any sure NBA stars either. But Kalin Lucas, Durrell Summers, Raymar Morgan, Delvon Roe and Goran Suton all have a chance to play in the league.

•2. Style

At this point, Tom Izzo could hire Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson as assistant coaches, and people would still say he doesn’t like to run.

It’s ridiculous. There is a reason Big Ten coaches don’t send many players to get offensive rebounds against MSU — they are worried about triggering a Spartans break. They want their players to drop back and play defense.

UNC is different. The Tar Heels aren’t going to adjust their style to stop Michigan State’s fast break.

Izzo said Lucas, Travis Walton and Korie Lucious will be told to push the ball downcourt at every opportunity — then decide if they should go for a quick basket or pull back.

•3. Can UNC slow it down?

The Tar Heels look even better on the stat sheet than they are, which is saying something. UNC plays such a fast pace that it skews the stats. UNC does not commit many turnovers, but that is partly because the Heels don’t hold on to the ball long enough to commit a turnover. They frequently pass once or twice, then fire up a shot.

If Lucas makes smart decisions in transition, North Carolina will be forced to score in the half-court. And that is where Michigan State has an advantage: The Spartans defend and rebound as well as anybody in the country.

•4. Pressure

Tonight the pressure will be on North Carolina. The Tar Heels can say their 35-point rout over MSU in December means nothing, but it established them as heavy favorites in this game. The crowd will be against them. And Roy Williams’ teams have been known to feel the pressure in the past.

It’s not something the Spartans are banking on. But if you’re a Michigan State fan, you have to hope that the game is tight with five minutes left, and the virtual home team wins.