Before the Elite Eight meeting with Missouri, UConn coach Jim Calhoun noted that the Huskies liked to get out and run, but doing that all game against the Tigers wouldn't be in the Huskies' best interest. Doing some more of that against Michigan State, though, may very well be in UConn's interest, as a sludgy, grinding, halfcourt game likely is what the Spartans would like to see.
Neither club is a top-10 offensive team in terms of efficiency, mostly because neither team shoots the ball well enough. Their approaches aren't too dissimilar, though. UConn is more dangerous inside the arc, MSU is better outside it. Both teams love to pound the offensive glass and get to the free throw line.
The marked advantage for UConn comes on the defensive end, principally because of 7-3 swatter Hasheem Thabeet. His shotblocking exploits are well documented, but his mere presence as a deterrent allows UConn to play very straight up defensively. They don't look for steals, they don't have to double down in the post and leave shooters, and they don't worry about getting blown past off the dribble. The result is not only are the Huskies fourth in Division I in two-point field goal defense at 40.7 percent, but they're also 19th in three-point defense at 30.4 percent and they put opponents on the free throw line at the lowest rate in the country.
Michigan State may be the best rebounding team in the nation, all things considered, as the Spartans rank fifth in offensive rebounding rate and seventh in defensive rate. That said, they're running into a team that's almost as imposing on the glass and is very stingy defensively. Finding a way to score enough easy points may be Michigan State's biggest problem. The Spartans' two-point field goal shooting (and defense, too) is well outside the top 100, which would be extremely unusual for a national champion.
UConn played 11 games this season against teams currently ranked in kenpom.com's top 25, going 8-3 in those games. If you believe the stats, though, the Huskies have a pronounced bully complex. Their average efficiency ratings on both ends of the court really dropped when they played the best teams on their schedule. On a median performance basis, the Huskies actually gave up more points per possession than they scored against elite foes, despite a positive overall season margin of 0.21 PPP.
Michigan State played nine games of comparable quality this season, although only two (North Carolina and Louisville) are really comparable to UConn. The Spartans (without Goran Suton) were destroyed by Carolina in December, but then more or less used UConn's game plan from February against Louisville in the Elite Eight, slowing the Cardinals down to a crawl and watching them flail in the half-court. Overall, Michigan State's metrics held up pretty well against the group of elite foes, but with many of them being just inside the Top 25 threshold, it's hard to apply them directly to this game.
The teams that had the most success against UConn were the ones who could hurt the Huskies on the offensive glass, and Michigan State clearly is capable of that. The Spartans also have solid guard play and agile big men who can pull Thabeet away from the rim.
Three of the Huskies' four losses came after Jerome Dyson was lost for the season. While it was a valid concern that his injury would impact UConn on the offensive end, the average offensive performance against elite teams was basically identical with and without Dyson this season. Interestingly, it was UConn's defensive numbers that took a hit, although part of that could be schedule-related, with both Pitt games and the six-OT affair with Syracuse coming after Dyson's injury.
Michigan State was all over the map with its defeats. Two came without center Goran Suton early in the season. Two more came in puzzling home losses to Northwestern and Penn State. They lost by 18 at Purdue and by 12 to Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament. Basically, they can be bad on occasion, and when they're bad, it's often at both ends.
The flip side to that is that when MSU is good, they can be very good and they usually close games out solidly. Which Spartans team will show up Saturday? They certainly have enough quality bodies to throw at the Huskies inside and out, and they have talent in spots that could give UConn some trouble. Suton played his best ball of the season in last week's regional and possesses the type of shooting ability that could force Thabeet to come out of his comfort zone in the lane and guard him. The matchup between Big Ten player of the year Kalin Lucas and UConn's A.J. Price and Kemba Walker could go a long way toward deciding how close this game is.
UConn better be ready to get strapped in. Pitt showed it's possible to push around the Huskies with success, and Michigan State is not afraid of physicality. UConn is the more talented team and the more statistically proficient team, but you suspect that Michigan State will be able to get this game into a style and tempo it prefers. You also need to factor in what should be a heavily pro-Spartans crowd in Detroit. In the end, though, the Spartans might not find a way to score enough points. UConn has more solid offensive options ... and it also has Thabeet.
Prediction: UConn 67, Michigan State 62