Matchups interesting despite what could have been
Oh wait, two of those guys are elsewhere.
Well, despite Telfair's leap to the NBA before ever setting foot at Louisville and Cotton's migration to Detroit Mercy after a frustrating first semester, these games should be compelling -- despite what looks, on paper, to be mismatches at the point.
Michigan State has slowly worked Drew Neitzel into the starting lineup. Since he has been starting, they are 12-2. Neitzel has become a solid defender and he continues to improve his scoring, but the best thing he does is throw the ball up the floor quickly to the likes of Maurice Ager, Shannon Brown and Kelvin Torbert. Just throwing the ball ahead makes the team run the floor with a greater deal of purpose and the Spartans don't get bogged down in the halfcourt as much.
Chris Hill always has filled in admirably as a converted point and Izzo likes to use his older players at the end of games. He is a prolific shooter, although he has yet to hit much of anything in this tournament. Neitzel will start, Hill will finish, and what happens in between depends solely on how the team is playing with each point guard at the helm.
North Carolina is, of course, led by Felton, who is at his best in the open floor. His team feeds off of his leadership and end-to-end speed. He is tenacious and a winner who usually plays better in big games.
Although he has had a solid year shooting the ball, he has struggled of late with his shot, his decision making and foul trouble. If you happened to see the 11-0 run Wisconsin put on the Heels at the end of the first half, or the late run that Villanova nearly beat them with in the Sweet 16, you know that Felton was sitting with fouls in both of those instances. Carolina can not win with Felton out of the game.
The key to this matchup: If Michigan State can contain Felton in transition and sag off him in the halfcourt, they can limit his ability to find Sean May inside. Provided that Felton does not "go nuts" and light them up (like he did versus Clemson in the ACC tournament), the Spartans can limit his effectiveness and win. Hill and Neitzel need to simply facilitate offensively and hit the open shots as they present themselves.
Advantage: Carolina, but not by as much as you would think.
Louisville usually has Francisco Garcia bring up the basketball, and he is a very fine passer. With Garcia, Taquan Dean and Brandon Jenkins, Louisville has an all-around talent, a prolific shooter and a great athlete, although there are times when they don't break down a defense and become a "chuck and duck" team leaning heavily on 3s instead.
This is a terrific defensive threesome because they are not only active and long-armed, but they are collectively in the best physical condition of any of the backcourts.
Illinois is led by the best point guard still playing (and in my opinion, the one guy who has played better than any other player in the tournament, if you consider the defense he plays).
Deron Williams really looks to set up his teammates as the game begins, then he steadily looks for mid-range jump shots and the occasional alley-oop dunk (thrown to him). As the game progresses, Dee Brown provides great energy and occasionally leads his own fast break, Luther Head is a fine passer from the wing who creates off penetration, but Williams will take the big shots and make the big passes in St. Louis.
The key: Look for Louisville to zone Illinois rather than chase the smaller, quicker Illini and their perpetual motion offense. The key is that Illinois must continue to penetrate regardless of the defense that Louisville is in.
There were times in the Arizona game in which Illinois rushed shots and shot with a hand in their face. The Cards are so much longer-armed, they should be able to disrupt those jump shots (although West Virginia dispelled that theory). Also, if Illinois is pressured by Louisville, look to see if Illinois tires as West Virginia did. Sometimes guards turn the ball over simply because they are physically exhausted.
Advantage: Illinois, unless Louisville gets hot from 3-point range.
Doug Gottlieb is an analyst for ESPN and co-hosts GameNight on ESPN Radio.
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