The Tar Heels are the most formidable opponent that the Spartans will play this season, and their tremendous depth and size matches up well with the Spartans.
Coach Tom Izzo noted that the three keys to victory for his team are transition defense, rebounding and staying out of foul trouble. Keeping the foul totals down will be extremely important for the Spartan interior players, because of the status of Goran Suton, whom Izzo said he does not anticipate playing.
The Spartans have been known for playing difficult schedules while under the direction of Tom Izzo. Since the 1997-98 season the Spartans have played 114 ranked opponents, but Coach Izzo thinks that you can compare this Carolina team with any that they have faced.
"It's maybe the best team we've played since I've been here," Izzo said during his press conference on Tuesday.
Izzo probably embellished a little bit with that statement considering that the Spartans played Duke and UConn in the 1998-99 season, as well as the 2005 Tar Heels and Fighting Illini. Nevertheless, this edition of the Tar Heels is likely to give the Spartans a grueling battle.
"They're the number one team in the nation. It's going to be a challenge," explained junior forward Raymar Morgan. "I think that's why everybody came to Michigan State, for challenges and big games like this."
Morgan has an individual challenge to overcome as well. How Morgan fares in his challenge against inconsistency will go a long way into determining how far this team advances in the tournament. Morgan believes that his play correlates directly with the way the team is playing.
"I know I can play a lot better. It's more mental than anything," Morgan said recently. "I think it'll come with us getting more mature as a team, us growing, and coming closer together, I think my scoring will come."
The Tar Heels have many weapons, including the reigning National Player of the Year Tyler Hansbrough, but many people feel that the most important player on North Carolina is point guard Ty Lawson. Coach Izzo said that Lawson was the best player he's ever seen, in terms of going end to end with the basketball. He compared Lawson to former Spartan great Mateen Cleaves, a player who, like Lawson, runs the break and is a load to handle.
"You don't stop Lawson with one guy," Izzo said. "He has explosive speed and strength."
"Tywon Lawson is a great player. He does push in transition very well," Lucas said after practice on Monday. "He's one of the best point guards in the country. My main thing is just to play solid on him."
Danny Green and Wayne Ellington provide great shooting ability and have gotten open looks as a result of Lawson's penetration and the play of the Carolina big men. Tyler Hansbrough, Deon Thompson, and freshman Ed Davis have been dominant in the paint. All three players are shooting over 50 percent and the Tar Heels are out-rebounding their opponents by 10 rebounds per game.
"They're relentless. They run the floor as well, they rebound, they pass. They're versatile big men," said freshman forward Delvon Roe, who may see his playing time increased on Wednesday night due to his improved play and Suton's injury. "They're not just one dimensional players. They're multitalented. They can do multiple things on the basketball court, and I think that's what makes that team so special."
Roe was the subject of a heated recruiting battle between the Spartans and Tar Heels while in high school. Roe chose to play for the Spartans prior to his senior season. North Carolina is one of the most tradition rich programs in the country and there is an aura around the team wherever they go. Tar Heel coach Roy Williams tried to convey that message to Roe while he was still uncommitted.
"Roy Williams used to always say that God was a Carolina fan because the sky was Carolina blue," Roe said. "That's a great program, but I think we're ready for the test."