Blowout gets an unlikely rematch
Much has changed in four months, but images of UNC's 35-point win are tough to forget
DETROIT -- Tom Izzo looked helpless. There was really nothing he could do. It was Dec. 3 and North Carolina was making a mockery of this Final Four preview game and test run for this weekend's event.
Izzo had no shot. He didn't have injured Goran Suton, who wasn't even in the building but rather back in East Lansing tending to an injury. Delvon Roe was hardly the player he is today, still coming back from microfracture surgery.
And the Spartans were already bruised a bit after getting blown out by Maryland the previous week at the Old Spice Classic.
The ACC-Big Ten Challenge's featured matchup was a disaster for everyone but North Carolina. Even the attendance of 25,267 was a disappointment. Nothing about that game, save how well the Tar Heels' offense looked in their 98-63 victory, was good.
"Bad memories," Izzo said of that game.
But Izzo, who told the press afterward that Carolina was "definitely one of the best teams I've seen in my 25 years at Michigan State," never lets a moment pass without a chance to learn. He was going to take something out of it.
"I told my team that maybe we'll get another shot at them," he said on the eve of the national title game Monday night at Ford Field. "I was really hoping for the Sweet 16 or Elite Eight. I can't say I dreamed it would be in the national championship."
No one on either side is playing the revenge game in advancing the story for Monday night. The players and coaches are savvy enough to know that the December game has no bearing on the title game. Michigan State's Travis Walton said the Spartans are a different team with Suton, just like North Carolina is without Ty Lawson. He referenced the Tar Heels' ACC tourney loss to Florida State without Lawson as an example.
"I've eliminated that game," Suton said. "I don't care what happened. It doesn't mean a thing. They kicked our butts. There were a lot of factors going on in that game."
Suton said while he was watching the game in East Lansing, "I was stunned. I was wishing that I was there so I could help the team out a little bit. It was the worst feeling to feel that helpless."
North Carolina coach Roy Williams said the Tar Heels caught the Spartans at the perfect time: without Suton and coming off a three-games-in-three-days stretch in Orlando, followed by a meeting with the Tar Heels in Detroit, not East Lansing.
Still, to those that were in the building that night, it is surreal to think how much has changed. The game seems like a lifetime ago. On that night, the Tar Heels looked like they should've booked rooms for the Final Four, and the Spartans maybe should've checked out NIT home dates.
MSU turned it over 21 times and shot 35 percent from the field, 23.5 percent from the 3-point line and 62 percent from the free throw line. It was so bad that none of UNC's starters even reached 30 minutes.
But the season is hardly a sprint. It is a marathon, and the Spartans were the class of the Big Ten, winning the conference by four games. They would also beat Texas in Houston and Kansas at home.
Both teams endured key injuries or illnesses. The Spartans dealt with issues concerning Suton and Roe early and Raymar Morgan during the Big Ten season, while the Tar Heels had to deal with Tyler Hansbrough's ankle sprain, Marcus Ginyard's season-ending foot injury and Lawson's toe.
The season is too long to get hung up on one game in December. It's easy to put a lot of stock into a hyped game in November or December, but the only correlation between the two games is that they are both being played at Ford Field.
"It's amazing that it happened like that," North Carolina's Wayne Ellington said. "I'm sure they're thinking rematch, redeem and all those things. But they're a completely different basketball team right now. We caught them at a time not at their best. It's going to be a fight Monday."
But the game did have a purpose. North Carolina was used to Ford Field when it arrived for Saturday's national semifinal against Villanova. The Heels picked up where they left off against the Spartans in December, running out ahead of the Wildcats by double figures early on.
"It definitely helped us get comfortable and helped last night to get used to the shooting, with all that space behind the backboard," Ellington said. "That does take a little bit of adjustment."
The game will look and feel nothing like it did in December. The arena is expected to be filled to capacity, with Spartans fans making up an overwhelming majority of the crowd.
Back in December, there was no doubt the Tar Heels could be in the position they are today. But Michigan State had to go on a roll to make it happen. The Spartans did. They got healthy, they defended and they got through the most daunting task of possibly any team to get to the title game in recent years.
The Spartans earned a No. 2 seed, and beat a No. 10 seed in USC that was as talented as some teams in the top 10. MSU then beat Big 12 outright champ Kansas, top-seeded Louisville and then another No. 1 seed in Connecticut.
Watching Michigan State now makes the game in December seem like it occurred in another season.
Too often we get caught up in the meaning of early-season games. They matter for the selection, but getting a true read on a team then generally has no bearing on how it performs in March or early April.
Michigan State should be a lesson to us all: Don't get blinded by lopsided, early-season failure.
Andy Katz is a senior writer at ESPN.com.