Thursday, May 23, 2024

Shooting for three

Win over No. 1 UNC would be Spartan's third top-seeded victim, earn MSU a third NCAA title

April 5, 2009

North Carolina forward Deon Thompson blocks freshman forward Delvon Roe’s layup attempt on Dec. 3, 2008, at Ford Field in Detroit. UNC kept a then-inexperienced and injury-hampered Roe in check, and the Tar Heels beat the Spartans 98-63.

Detroit — Tom Izzo is a realist. The MSU men’s basketball head coach knows that if both MSU and North Carolina play “good” in tonight’s NCAA national championship game, then the trophy is going to the Tar Heels. “That’s the way I look at it,” Izzo said at his press conference on Sunday at Ford Field. “I mean, I don’t look at that in the negative. They are the best team in the country, and have been that. (They) have earned that rank probably over a year and a half. But we found a way to have some teams not play as good against us.

“We’ve just got to play good and have them play a little less than good. That’s how we hope to beat them.”

When the Spartans and Tar Heels tip off at 9:21 p.m. tonight at Ford Field for the national title, a lot of the attention will focus on what happened the last time the two teams played each other.

On Dec. 3, 2008, North Carolina dismantled the Spartans by 35 points in the same venue in front of a national television audience. Although the Spartans were playing their fourth game in seven days, without senior center Goran Suton (knee) and with two other players, freshman forward Delvon Roe (knee) and sophomore guard Kalin Lucas (back) suffering injuries, Izzo said Sunday the Spartans still would have lost to North Carolina by 20 points because of how well the Tar Heels were playing.

North Carolina head coach Roy Williams isn’t so sure.

“Tommy can sell. Doesn’t mean I have to buy,” Williams said. “We caught them at an absolute perfect time. … But the bottom line is, I personally don’t think that that game will have much, if anything, to do with the game that we play Monday night.”

On Sunday, senior guard Travis Walton said even after the 35-point loss in December, the Spartans knew they had a chance to make it where they will be Monday night.

“We believe in ourselves,” Walton said. “We knew we had a great team. We got a great coaching staff. We work hard. This was our goal all along. Even though we had some ups and downs, we still believed we were a great team, even though nobody else believed in us.”

Finding anyone outside the MSU locker room and fan base who believe the Spartans can pull off the upset will be difficult yet again Monday. Even though MSU has already beaten the defending national champions in Kansas, the No. 1 overall seed in Louisville and another No. 1 seed in UConn, it seems the Spartans have been perpetual underdogs since the early rounds of the tournament.

Aside from impressive wins over top-ranked teams, the Spartans also are a much different team compared to the one that took to the Ford Field court in early December. Not only are Suton (12.2 points and 10.6 rebounds per game) and Lucas (14.4 points, 5.4 assists) fully healthy, but a host of other players have stepped up in key moments. Sophomore guards Chris Allen and Durrell Summers each have led the Spartans in scoring at times.

The game against North Carolina also was just the sixth of freshman forward Draymond Green’s career. In the tournament, Green has played a crucial role off the bench, averaging 8.8 points and five rebounds a game.

“(We’re) a lot different,” junior forward Raymar Morgan said of his team in December compared to now. “Back then, (Suton), he wasn’t even in the building. Delvon was still facing some injuries. We just had a lot of ups and downs. A lot of guys weren’t playing as much.”

To no one’s surprise, North Carolina’s stars also have improved and risen to the occasion in the tournament.

Ty Lawson, who was named the South Regional Most Outstanding Player, is leading the team with 20.8 points a game, while guard Wayne Ellington has scored in double figures in nine of his last 10 tournament games.

Tyler Hansbrough is averaging 17.4 points and eight rebounds, and Danny Green also was named to the South’s all-regional team.

Despite the story line being North Carolina’s throttling of MSU in December and the Tar Heels’ improvement of their own during the season, Green said the earlier matchup hasn’t even crossed North Carolina’s mind.

“That game happened so long ago. This is a totally different team that we’re playing against,” Green said. “It’s the last game of the year, so I don’t see us being too confident or looking past anybody or anything, because there’s nothing to look forward to after this. This is it.”

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