Final Four Preview: MSU v. North Carolina

This game will be a thriller, with two solid coaches and a roster full of athletes taking the game down to the closing moments. Preview the games key matchups, possible strategies, role players to watch and peek at Doug Warren's final score when you <I>Get Inside</I>.

THE MATCHUP: Michigan State Spartans (26-6) vs. North Carolina Tar Heels (33-4)

DATE: Saturday April 2, 2005 – St. Louis, MO – Edward Jones Dome (47,500)

TIME: Approx. 8:47 p.m. EST - CBS TV – Jim Nantz (Play by Play), Billy Packer (color)

SERIES/GAME NOTES: North Carolina leads the all-time series with Michigan State, 5-3, including a 2-0 advantage in NCAA Tournament games. The Tar Heels defeated the Spartans, 74-70, in triple overtime in the 1957 Final Four in Kansas City. In 1998, No. 1 North Carolina defeated No. 4 Michigan State, 73-58, in the Sweet 16. MSU won the last meeting, 77-64, on Nov. 29, 2000 in East Lansing.

Michigan State associate head coach Doug Wojcik spent three seasons as an assistant coach under Matt Doherty (2000-03). He helped land North Carolina's 2001 recruiting class of Sean May, Raymond Felton and Rashad McCants. In 2001, UNC earned a No. 1 national ranking and won a share of the ACC regular-season championship.

North Carolina and the Spartans shared seven common opponents en route to the Final Four. UNC edged Iowa, Indiana, Kentucky and Vermont at the beginning of the season, went 1-1 against conference-opponent Duke and eliminated Oakland and Wisconsin from the NCAA Tournament. MSU split two games with the Blue Devils, including the Spartans' 10-point win in the Sweet 16, as well as Iowa and Wisconsin and lost its only meeting with the Hoosiers. State defeated Oakland in January and Vermont in the second round of the NCAA Tournament, in addition to toppling Kentucky in the double-overtime Elite Eight thriller.

MICHIGAN STATE NOTES: The Spartans are making their fourth Final Four appearance in the last seven years, the most by any school in that stretch, while Tom Izzo is just the second coach in NCAA history to make four Final Four appearances in his first 10 years. The Spartans will face a North Carolina squad that is making its 16th trip to the Final Four, but its first since 2000, the year of MSU's NCAA Championship. Michigan State advanced to St. Louis by becoming the first team in NCAA history to defeat Duke and Kentucky in the same tournament, defeating the Wildcats in double-overtime in the regional final.

NORTH CAROLINA NOTES: The Tar Heels advanced to the 16th Final Four in school history by defeating Wisconsin, 88-82, to capture the Syracuse Regional. The Tar Heels also defeated Oakland, Iowa State and Villanova on the road to St. Louis.

Tar Heels' Head Coach Roy Williams (North Carolina, '72) is 468-116 in his 17th season as a collegiate head coach and 50-15 in his second year at North Carolina after spending his first 15 seasons at Kansas. Williams is appearing in his fifth Final Four and his first with North Carolina.

KEY MATCHUPS:

Center: MSU's Paul Davis (6'11" 255) versus North Carolina's Sean May (6'9" 260)

Hopefully neither of these players finds the bench with foul trouble because it will be fun to watch these two fine players battle all night. Sean May is an absolute load on the block; a true old school big man with a great back to the basket ability and the quickness and speed to fill the lanes on the fast break. May has averaged 18.6 points and 12.4 rebounds in North Carolina's last 19 games and has pulled down an amazing 6.2 offensive boards-per-game in his last seven games.

Paul Davis is playing the best basketball of his career right now. He is averaging a double-double in the NCAA Tournament (15.0 ppg and 10.8 rpg). Davis has recorded a double-double in each of the last three games, making him the first Spartan to record three straight double-doubles in NCAA play since Earvin Johnson recorded four straight in the 1979 NCAA Tournament.

In the halfcourt, May will have the advantage offensively because of his quickness and overall post up game. Davis must be careful not to pick up cheap fouls defending the post while at the same time looking to be aggressive himself on his offensive end. While Davis doesn't have the overall post repertoire that May has, his two inch height advantage and his underrated strength should serve him well.

Both players are great rebounders and runners and will each get their share of opportunities to earn buckets in transition as both the Spartans and the Tar Heels like to push the ball aggressively following turnovers and defensive boards.

Power Forward: MSU's Alan Anderson (6'6" 220) versus North Carolina's Jawad Williams (6'9" 220)

This is a matchup that the Spartans could exploit to their advantage. Wisconsin's Alando Tucker, and undersized PF (6'5" 205) had 25 points in their regional final loss to the Tar Heels last Sunday. Tucker used his quickness very effectively against Williams and Anderson could do the same Saturday against him.

Anderson is averaging 14 points and 7 rebounds during tournament play and is shooting a combined .556 from the field (15-27) and .625 (5-8) from behind the arc. Alan is a better rebounder than Jawad (3.9 rpg this season), but will have a tougher time against the powerful freshman Marvin Williams (6'9" 230), who has averaged an impressive 11.7 ppg and 6.6 rpg this season while averaging 22.1 minutes-per-game for Carolina.

At the 4 and the 5 spots, it will be imperative that Michigan State gets solid production from their reserves Matt Trannon (6'6" 217), Drew Naymick (6'10" 245) and Delco Rowley (6'8" 253). Otherwise, North Carolina's talented front court could really have their way if either Davis and/or Anderson get into foul trouble.

Trannon, a Michigan State wide receiver from August to December, has been the best of the three; he scored four points, a rebound, an assist, a block and two steals in 17 minutes vs. Kentucky (3/27) – and two points, three rebounds and two steals in 11 minutes of play vs. Duke (3/25) during the Austin Regional last weekend.

Shooting Guard: MSU's Maurice Ager (6'5" 195) versus North Carolina's Rashad McCants (6'4" 207)

Ager will have his hands full with McCants Saturday. This season, Rashad is averaging 16 ppg while shooting at a .489 clip from the field (170-348) and .419 (67-160) from 3-point land. McCants averaged 19 ppg while shooting 16-of-37 from the field (.432) last weekend in wins over Villanova and Wisconsin.

Ager, however, will provide plenty of problems for McCants in his own right. Maurice is averaging 13.8 ppg this season overall and is currently the Spartans' leading scorer in tournament play (16.8 ppg) including a 24 point performance in the double OT win over Kentucky last Sunday in Austin.

Both McCants and Ager are slashers with the ability to create their own shot and complete highlight reel dunks on the break. If both teams running games are in high gear, these two players could be in for big performances.

Point Guard: MSU's Drew Neitzel (6'0" 175) and Chris Hill (6'3" 190) versus North Carolina's Raymond Felton (6'1" 198)

This will be the most important matchup of the night. The Spartans must control Felton if they are to slow down the Tar Heels' running game ad the impact of Sean May. Felton is shooting .453 from the floor this season (140-309), while averaging 12.7 ppg. He is hitting .432 of his three-point attempts this season (64-148) to lead the ACC. For the second season in a row, Felton is leading the ACC in assists, averaging 6.91 per game and is fourth in the ACC in steals with 2.03 per contest.

Neitzel and Hill must play better defensively against Felton than they did versus Kentucky's Rojan Rondo last Sunday. The problem for Tom Izzo is that while both of his point guards struggle at times defensively, they are running the offense too well to sit on the bench. Combined, the Spartans' PG's have done a fine job of taking care of the basketball.

In his last 23 games, Hill has recorded 101 assists and 33 turnovers, while Neitzel has recorded 72 assists and 29 turnovers in his last 24 games. In addition, Hill currently leads the Big Ten with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.94-to-1. It's a number that ranks first among Spartan point guards of the last 20 years, ahead of players like Mateen Cleaves (1.9 in his last three years); Mark Montgomery (2.3 as a junior), Scott Skiles (2.0 as a senior) and Eric Snow (2.5 as a junior and senior).

If Izzo finds out early that neither Neitzel nor Hill can hold their own against Felton, expect the Spartans to look to the bench for Kelvin Torbert (6'4" 218), as well as to move starting swingman Shannon Brown (6'4" 205) over from the 3-spot to the 1-spot to keep Felton in check.

Torbert has been the Spartans' best perimeter defender this tournament, and he and Brown were instrumental in neutralizing Duke's backcourt of J.J. Redick and Daniel Ewing to a combined 31 points on 11-for-30 shooting (.366) in MSU's victory last Friday, as well as holding Kentucky's aforementioned Rondo to just 7 points, 5 rebounds, and 3 assists in the regional championship.

TAR HEELS TO WATCH: Forward Marvin Williams (6'9" 230) and Guards Jackie Manuel (6'5" 192) and David Noel (6'6" 230)

ACC Freshman of the Year Marvin Williams adds important front court depth for the Tar Heels and is averaging 11.7 points and 6.6 rebounds per-game this season. He also has 39 steals and 16 blocks. Marvin has upped his play in the postseason, averaging 15.5 points and 7.8 rebounds in the four NCAA Tournament games. He will spend plenty of time going head-to-head with the veteran Alan Anderson in what could be a telling matchup.

The Carolina duo of Manuel and Noel often team up to guard an opponents' top perimeter player. In the second half of the regular season, the pair played excellent defense against opponents that included Julius Hodge of NC State (twice), Von Wafer of Florida State, J.J. Redick of Duke (twice), Rudy Gay of Connecticut, J.R. Reynolds of Virginia and Nik Caner-Medley of Maryland. Those players were 39-for-107 (36.4 percent) from the field and had one 20-point game in eight outings.

It is likely that both of these players will see significant time guarding both Maurice Ager and Shannon Brown Saturday.

KEYS TO VICTORY:

North Carolina: Pressure MSU's Guards, Rebound, and Play Solid Defense.

If Felton and Manuel can disrupt the play of Neitzel and Hill, it could be a long night for Michigan State. However, as has been pointed out above, both Spartan point-men have been very efficient with the basketball while leading their team this season.

The key for the Tar Heels will be the old standbys of rebounding and defense. If they can control the glass against a tough rebounding squad like MSU while playing solid transition and team defense against the athletic foursome of Anderson, Torbert, Ager and Brown, they will be well on their way to victory.

Michigan State: Contain May and Felton, Protect the Basketball, Rebound and Get Back in Transition.

May is too good to stop once he gets the basketball. The key for Michigan State will be to deny him the ball in the first place by applying relentless pressure on Felton and the other Tar Heel guards and swingmen.

North Carolina likes to score in bunches, but if Michigan State can disrupt the flow of the North Carolina offense, the talented Tar Heels have a tendency, much like Illinois, to lapse into cruise control for short periods. If this happens, Michigan State must take advantage of it with scoring bursts on their own end. If the Spartans can hang with the Tar Heels on the boards and get back in transition to limit the Tar Heels fast break points, they will have a solid shot at pulling the upset.

PREDICTION: The key to this game for both teams will be rebounding and team defense. Both teams are solid rebounding squads and will get their share of fast breaks and second chance possessions because of it. If a stalemate occurs on the glass, the victory will then lie in the hands of the team that applies the most consistent defensive pressure. North Carolina will not be able to play the kind of defense against the Spartans that they did against Wisconsin last Sunday. The Badgers rolled up, what for them was, an uncharacteristic 82 points; and that was with their top player, Mike Wilkinson only scoring 11 points in 39 minutes of action.

This game is a toss up. While the Tar Heels have a clear advantage at PG with Felton, I think the Center matchup with May and Davis will be a wash, provided that neither man gets into foul trouble. The real intriguing matchups will be between at the forward and shooting guard spots, with both teams utilizing athletes in a variety of roles and combinations. I think this game will be a thriller, with two solid coaches and a roster full of athletes taking the game down to the closing moments.

In the end though, I have a feeling that the team whose defense has allowed 64.8 points-per-game on the season will edge out the team that has allowed 70.3 ppg.

FINAL: Michigan State 78, North Carolina 76


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