Saturday, April 4, 2009
Updated: April 5, 10:17 AM ET
Heels ready for a different Spartans team Monday
DETROIT -- The first time North Carolina played Michigan State this season, the Tar Heels won by 35 points.
The teams will play again Monday night, and this time, the national championship will be on the line at Ford Field.
The Spartans advanced to their second national championship game under coach Tom Izzo by beating Connecticut 82-73 on Saturday night. North Carolina defeated Villanova 83-69 in the second national semifinal.
The Tar Heels were the first consensus No. 1 selection in the preseason ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll and were supposed to be here.
After UNC blasted the Spartans 98-63 at Ford Field on Dec. 3, Izzo had to wonder where his young team was headed.
But in its past three games, Michigan State has defeated defending national champion Kansas and No. 1 seeds Louisville and Connecticut.
"The impact of the first game really doesn't have anything to do with the next game," UNC point guard Ty Lawson said. "They had a couple of guys hurt and were coming off a long road trip. I know they're a better team now."
The first time the teams played, the Spartans were coming off a stretch in which they played three games in four days at the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, Fla. The Spartans had had only two days of rest before playing the Tar Heels and played them without senior Goran Suton, who was about to undergo arthroscopic surgery on his sprained left knee.
North Carolina knows it will play a much different team Monday night.
"We are a confident team, but we will not be overconfident Monday night," UNC coach Roy Williams said. "We will not be, OK? That's just not gonna happen. We'll be intense. We'll have a sense of urgency. We'll have a tremendous amount of respect for what Michigan State has done. If you saw the game [on Dec. 3], you could tell early, early in the second half that Michigan State just did not have their legs. The three games and the travel had a tremendous impact on that game. Not having Suton had tremendous impact on that game. I honestly believe that, and no one will ever convince me differently."
The Tar Heels also can expect to play in a hostile environment Monday night. Michigan State will be playing only 90 miles from its campus in East Lansing. The Spartans played in front of what was essentially a home crowd Saturday night, and even more of their fans might be in attendance Monday night after many Connecticut and Villanova fans sell their tickets during the next two days.
"I'm expecting 80 percent of the crowd to be Michigan State," Lawson said. "But we play well on the road."
The Tar Heels might have to play better than they did against Villanova to win their fifth national championship and first since 2005. Although the Tar Heels led by as many as 18 points and led for all but 1 minute, 38 seconds of the game, they were far from spectacular against Villanova.
North Carolina, which made 76 percent of its foul shots before Saturday, missed 15 of 37 attempts against the Wildcats. Villanova had 22 offensive rebounds and had a 53-48 advantage on the boards.
But the Tar Heels made 11 of 22 3-pointers and locked down the perimeter on defense, holding Villanova to only 5-for-27 shooting from beyond the 3-point line.
"It was an ugly game in the second half, and nobody could make any shots," Williams said. "We've been sensational from the free-throw line all season, but we struggled there today."
The Spartans haven't played this well all season. They had unexpected contributions from junior forward Raymar Morgan and reserve guard Korie Lucious, who had combined to score only 10 points in their previous three games. Morgan erupted for 18 points with nine rebounds and five steals after enduring a monthlong slump. One of the Spartans' leading scorers early in the season, Morgan struggled after battling mononucleosis and walking pneumonia in mid-January.
"We needed somebody to step up, and he stepped up in a huge way," Izzo said. "Not only rebounding the ball, not only defending, not only being physical down there, but the way he scored, and what he did, and the way he didn't turn the ball over."
Lucious, a freshman from Milwaukee, scored 11 points and knocked down a pair of 3-pointers when the Huskies were trying to battle back. Michigan State's bench outscored Connecticut's reserves 33-7. Izzo went to his bench early and often, using 11 players in an attempt to wear the Huskies down.
"We thought we had depth over them," Izzo said. "That's why we had to run and wanted to run. We could run if we could rebound. We rebounded pretty well."
And the Spartans played remarkably well.
Certainly better than how they played against the Tar Heels the first time this season.
"I've coached in games before where we beat a team easily or got killed and turned around and beat them the second time," Williams said. "I have respect for Tom. My team will not be overconfident. My team will be confident, but my team knows that they'll have the battle of the state of Michigan. The battle of Detroit is what we will have Monday night."