Monday April 6th, 2009

DETROIT -- There is no doubt that the North Carolina Tar Heels can beat the Michigan State Spartans tonight.

But can they beat destiny?

That is the central question that is, well, destined to be answered tonight. It might seem hokey or silly or even irrelevant, but if you had sat next to me in Ford Field on Saturday night, listening to the pitched green-and-white crowd in the stands and watching the Spartans play their most inspired basketball of the season, then you would have also gotten the feeling that this NCAA tournament has been overtaken by outside forces.

The storyline is too great to resist. Not only are the Spartans here in Detroit, they're here at a time when the city so desperately needs this economic and spiritual lift. Upon arriving in Detroit late last week, my initial instinct was to predict that Michigan State's home dome advantage would mean little in their battle against mighty UConn. After all, the fans can't make 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet shrink to 6-4, can they?

My second thought was to wonder whether the Michigan State players would overreact to the crowd. They could come out too hyped up or feel too much pressure to perform, and get thrown off their game. That was a very real danger.

Instead, the Spartans fed off the energy of the crowd without becoming bloated by it, and it gave them a deepening belief. Each time a Michigan State player stepped onto the court, he did something important, something significant which helped keep the Huskies at bay. It started with 6-7 junior forward Raymar Morgan, who had scored just one field goal in his previous three games. He had also suffered a broken nose in the Sweet 16 against Kansas and has had to adjust to playing with a protective face mask. Mostly, however, he struggled with the inconsistency and lack of confidence that has plagued him throughout his college career. Before the game on Saturday night, Spartans coach Tom Izzo pulled Morgan aside and told him he needed to play more assertively if Michigan State was going to have a chance to win. Morgan responded by being the best player on the court during the first half en route to an 18-point, 9-rebound, 2-assist, 0-turnover performance.

You can go up and down the Spartans' roster and find many more examples. Senior guard Travis Walton, the Big Ten's Defensive Player of the Year, harassed A.J. Price into a 5-for-20 night while contributing nine assists and zero turnovers on the offensive end. (If you're keeping score at home, Kansas' Sherron Collins, Louisville's Terrence Williams and Price have now mysteriously disappeared while going up against Walton.) Durrell Summers came off the bench to add 10 points, six rebounds and one absolutely filthy dunk over Stanley Robinson that officially put the Huskies away. Freshman guard Korie Lucious, who had scored a grand total of three points in the tournament to that point, scored 11 in the first half alone. Michigan State's bench outscored UConn's 33-7. It was a total team effort if ever there was one.

But if there is one area that Michigan State's tenacity, togetherness and toughness manifested most of all, it is rebounding. The Spartans led the nation this season in rebound margin, and on Saturday night they snagged 18 -- count 'em, 18 offensive rebounds against the best front line in America. Those offensive rebounds, combined with the Spartans' ability to force UConn to commit 16 turnovers, added up to 13 more field-goal attempts than UConn had. It is very, very hard to beat a team that is getting that many more shots than you are.

If the Spartans are able to do that to a team like UConn, they should have an even more pronounced advantage tonight. North Carolina is a good rebounding team, but Tyler Hansbrough is the Tar Heels' only great rebounder. North Carolina also can't come close to matching the Spartans' depth. Beyond freshman Ed Davis, the only big man the Tar Heels bring off the bench is Tyler Zeller, a talented but inexperienced beanpole who is not prepared to play in a physical contest such as this one. The only other reserve is senior guard Bobby Frasor, who does not appear to be playing with much confidence these days.

All of which is not to say North Carolina will be overmatched. That would be ludicrous. We all know what an offensive juggernaut the Tar Heels are. They led the nation in scoring this season with 90 points per game. I seriously doubt North Carolina will get to 90 tonight, but if they get to 80, Michigan State could be in trouble. The Spartans showed Saturday that they have a great running game, but they have to be careful about allowing tonight's game to get into a track meet. Mostly, they have to take care of the ball (turnovers have been MSU's bugaboo this season, though it has done a better job during the tournament) and take smart shots. If the Spartans are careless and don't shoot a high percentage, that will feed right into North Carolina's transition game.

North Carolina is a heavy favorite, as it should be. When Wayne Ellington and Danny Green are making threes (they were a combined 9-for-17 against Villanova), the Tar Heels are nearly impossible to beat. But in Michigan State, North Carolina is playing the best half-court, man-to-man defensive team it has gone up against all season. The Heels will have fewer clean looks at the basket, so when they do get those looks they need to convert.

Look, we all know North Carolina is the better team. And if Michigan State is going to win, it will need some help from the Heels, whether it be in the form of a bad shooting night, foul trouble or sloppiness with the ball. But if Michigan State has a challenge in not getting over-hyped by the crowd, so too will North Carolina have to keep its composure against the sound of 60,000 plus green-and-white clad Spartans in full throat. In this, the 30th year since Michigan State won its first national championship, there may not be any Magic on the court, but there is magic in the air here in Detroit. Destiny brought the Spartans to Motown at the very moment when this city needed them most. It's only fitting that they add one more win to cap off an NCAA championship run for the ages.

Prediction: Michigan State 79, North Carolina 78

Above: A 360-degree view of when North Carolina and Michigan State played at Ford Field in December.

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