"It is a huge concern, but it's a concern any time you play Tommy's teams," said Williams, whose squad outrebounded the Spartans, 40-39, in December's much-discussed meeting. "I think if you pick 21 years as head coach, I would say we're the leading scoring team in the country in those 21 years. Well, I think in Tommy's years as a head coach, they're best rebounding team in college basketball during those years. It's something we've had to face against them in the past."
The evidence is quite telling – Michigan leads the country with a plus-9.4 rebounding margin on the season, and sits atop the Big Ten standings in that category for the ninth time in 11 seasons. The Spartans' run to Detroit has been cemented in continuing that trend in the NCAA Tournament, posting a plus-5.8 rebounding margin against elite-level opponents.
Unlike the one-man glass cleaner that North Carolina encountered last weekend in Oklahoma's Blake Griffin (14.4 rpg), Michigan State's leading rebounder, Goran Suton, is only pulling down 8.3 boards per outing. Next in line is Delvon Roe's 5.1, but what follows is seven more Spartans grabbing more than two rebounds per game.
The Tar Heels have perennially been a dominant rebounding program, including this season – UNC is tied for 13th nationally with a plus-6.7 margin. But North Carolina posted a plus-11.0 margin in 2007-08, and essentially returned the same lineup with the addition of Ed Davis (6.5 rpg).
The 2008-09 season opener against a small Penn roster foreshadowed the unexplained drop in production on the glass, as UNC managed just a 42-32 edge, prompting Williams to say, "We've got to do a better job rebounding the basketball, particularly on the offensive end."
Fast forward nearly five months and echoes of those comments seemingly reached the inner bowels of Ford Field on Saturday night, as the Tar Heels were outrebounded by Villanova, 53-48. To make matters worse, the Wildcats were able to keep the game close by pulling down 22 offensive rebounds, 13 in the first half.
"I know Coach [Williams] was really disappointed in us in how we didn't dominate the backboards like we normally do and like we should have," junior forward Deon Thompson said. "It definitely was frustrating with the little guys running around and getting to the glass."
Izzo and his Spartans – considered an underdog in their home state – will work tirelessly to produce similar results on Monday night. Michigan State is pulling down 14.1 offensive rebounds per game on the season, and are gobbling up a staggering 40.9 percent of their missed shots.
Senior wing Danny Green insists slashing opponents' offensive rebounding totals is an "easy fix," telling reporters after the Saturday's game that "it's not that hard – you've just got to have desire to box someone out."
But the Tar Heels have been outrebounded in four of their last six outings, while allowing 14.8 offensive rebounds per game in five NCAA Tournament contests. That latter statistic looks better than reality once you factor in that Gonzaga only managed four offensive boards on Mar. 27 in Memphis.
One silver lining in Saturday's board efforts was the production North Carolina received from its perimeter players. Wayne Ellington, Ty Lawson and Bobby Frasor combined for 23 rebounds, including eight offensive boards.
"That was the main thing that Coach [Williams] expressed at halftime – that we needed to do better on the boards," Lawson said. "And I took it as I could come down and get some rebounds and help the big men out, because they were battling. Villanova was sending four people to the glass on every possession, so we had to come down and help them out."
That's not a completely new occurrence, however. Ellington is UNC's second-leading rebounder (6.0 rpg), while Lawson (4.3 rpg) and Frasor (3.4 rpg) are proven commodities in the backcourt.
"It's something that Coach [Steve Robinson] has started for us," Ellington said. "He's always challenging us to get tough rebounds, to stick our noses in there and get loose balls. I think that's where it comes from."
Despite the hoopla surrounding Michigan State's opportunity to provide a shining light to this economically-depressed metropolis, the cards are lining up in North Carolina's favor. The offense is rolling and the defense is matching the '05 national championship team's late run – UNC holding Villanova to below 30 percent for a half matches what that squad did in both Final Four contests.
Michigan State's Rook card is its ability to rebound the basketball, and if North Carolina can limit its exposure in that regard, the Tar Heels may very well be the last team standing in 2009. Ironically, the Spartans' NCAA Tournament team record for rebounds (68) occurred against UNC on Mar. 22, 1957.
Two days later, the Tar Heels returned to Chapel Hill with their first NCAA crown.