Scouting Report: Michigan State vs. North Carolina

While oddsmakers are making Michigan State a solid underdog to #3 ranked North Carolina, the Spartans are peaking and playing their best basketball of the season. The Tar Heels, with three players who are potential first-round draft picks in their starting lineup, have played some shaky basketball at times, especially when point guard <B>Raymond Felton</b> is off the floor.

EAST LANSING - While oddsmakers are making Michigan State a solid underdog to #3 ranked North Carolina, the Spartans are peaking and playing their best basketball of the season. The Tar Heels, with three players who are potential first-round draft picks in their starting lineup, have played some shaky basketball at times. They appear to especially be vulnerable when junior point guard Raymond Felton leaves the lineup. Both MSU coach Tom Izzo and UNC coach Roy Williams agree that Felton is the key to UNC's attack.

"Felton stirs their drink," Izzo said. "He'll be one of our toughest matchup problems. He can take you off the dribble with his quickness, and he makes other people better." Williams agreed. "I would hate to think where we would be without Raymond. I can't imagine anyone being more valuable or necessary than Raymond is because of the way we like to play."

The way the Tar Heels like to play is a fast-paced, up-tempo style similar to MSU's, but without Felton, the Tar Heels offense bogs down and they get out of sync. Michigan State must attack Felton with their depth at the position. That leads the highlights of our scouting report.

POINT GUARD: Raymond Felton vs. Drew Neitzel and Co. Michigan State must run waves at Felton. He is coming off a twisted ankle suffered in the team's win over Wisconsin. The Spartans need to continue to play an uptempo style, first with Neitzel, then with seniors Chris Hill and Tim Bograkos. They must pressure Felton and try to tire him and his bum ankle out, forcing freshman guard Quentin Thomas into the game. If they can do that, it will slow UNC's effectiveness big time. ADVANTAGE: EVEN

GUARD/FORWARD: Jawad Williams vs. Shannon Brown. There's no coincidence that Shannon Brown has begun to emerge as the big time scoring threat MSU envisioned when it recruited him out of suburban Chicago. Brown is at his best when he can get out on the break and soar above the rim. That seems to get him in rhythm and then he begins raining down threes. Meanwhile Williams is in his deepest shooting slump of the season. A clearly worried coach Roy Williams hopes he snaps out of it soon. "I'm concerned, there's no question about that, because his production has slipped," Williams said, "but I think Jawad's going to be OK. I really do." Williams is 2-of-13 for the NCAA tournament and has missed his last seven shots from three point land. ADVANTAGE: MICHIGAN STATE

CENTER: Paul Davis vs. Sean May. This marquee matchup will go a long way toward determining the outcome. When UNC goes to their set offense, May is option #1. He is a big, physical, imposing threat in the low box and is rarely slowed by anyone. On the other hand, Paul Davis is also playing solid basketball and with a two inch height advantage should be a load for May. Still, Davis cannot get in foul trouble. He must avoid his penchant for committing early fouls and MSU needs to use sophomore Drew Naymick and junior Matt Trannon to spell Davis defensively. ADVANTAGE: NORTH CAROLINA

FORWARD: Rashad McCants vs. Maurice Ager. Ager has hit the bigtime in this tournament. He seems to love the spotlight, hitting 36% of his three point shots and averaging 16.8 in the NCAA tournament. His performance on the perimeter will be one of the keys to this matchup. If he can force McCants to come out on the perimeter it will open up Davis inside. Both of these players have the ability to light up the scoreboard and if Ager can offset McCants' production, MSU will be in great shape ADVANTAGE: NORTH CAROLINA

FORWARD: Alan Anderson vs. Marvin Williams. The most unsung matchup of the night. Both players fly under the radar but both do things that help their respective teams win ballgames, like rebounding and free throw shooting. Williams averages 11.7 ppg and 6.6 rebounds, Anderson averages 13.7 and 5.6 rebounds

BENCH: While North Carolina can boast three potential NBA'ers, they don't have the depth that Michigan State has. The Spartans run eleven contributors on the floor including seniors Kelvin Torbert, Chris Hill and Tim Bograkos. That has had a huge effect on opponents in this tournament. Eventually every team has tired and not been able to finish down the stretch. North Carolina's bench isn't all that deep either. They get contributions from senior Melvin Scott and junior David Noel, but one player they hope doesn't have to play much is freshman backup point guard Quentin Thomas who has been shaky at best. ADVANTAGE: MICHIGAN STATE

COACHING: Roy Williams may have the name, but pound for pound, few are better than Tom Izzo. Izzo pulled out all the stops to motivate his team to make a run including bringing out the sledge hammer to some Big Ten game tapes. Some questioned, including here, MSU super rugged schedule, but now, State doesn't appear to be afraid of anyone, in fact, opponents have been caught aback at how well MSU competes early on. Izzo also has brought in venerable Jud Heathcoat unofficially to the staff for an extra pair of eyes and the great Magic Johnson is never too far away to give MSU a boost.

There is a chance that some of the Spartan coaching staff might be distracted. Doug Wojcik is likely ready to get started recruiting at Tulsa and assistant Mark Montgomery interviewed, but lost out on the Eastern Michigan job. What of Izzo himself? Rumors of the Detroit Pistons job and the Cleveland Cavaliers job continue to swirl.

Williams, on the other hand, has a three-hundred pound monkey on his back, the pressure of the expectations of Carolina fans who demand that he bring home a NCAA banner. For all his poise and pizzazz, Williams is what Phil Mickelson used to be; the greatest coach never to win a title. ADVANTAGE: MICHIGAN STATE

PICK: Give Michigan State a puncher's chance. Their underclassmen have risen up to save the seniors season but now is their chance to be the "X" factor in this one. Imagine how a hot shooting performance by Hill or a breakout performance by Torbert could alter the balance of this one. Conversely, the UNC players are on a mission. They know that this is the last shot for this group, originally recruited by Matt Doherty, to live up to the promise that was expected of them. They're off to the NBA, win or lose in this one.

NORTH CAROLINA 83 - MICHIGAN STATE 80. (Hope I'm wrong.)

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