Most of the talk heading into Sunday’s Midwest Regional Final centered on the hot Louisville Cardinals and their chance to give the Big East three teams in the Final Four.
Turns out someone forgot to tell Louisville that their work wasn’t done with that 103-64 beating of Arizona on Friday night.
Two days after the prolific beating of the suddenly elite tournament’s final “surprise”, the Cardinals became the nail to Michigan State’s hammer. Failing to establish anything on either end of the floor, the Cardinals fell to Tom Izzo’s Spartans in Indianapolis by a final of 64-52. For some reason Louisville didn’t have the same level of intensity, failing to turn over the Spartans, getting outrebounded by eight and failing to score any fast break points. Both teams finished the game with twelve turnovers and the Spartans outscored the Cardinals by six from behind the arc, two no-no’s when it comes to Coach Pitino’s formula for success.
Michigan State did more than enough on the offensive end to move on to the Final Four; their man-to-man defense was a sight to behold. They stifled the Cardinals, holding them to 38.3% shooting from the field and senior Terrence Williams to just one field goal (an alley-oop dunk). The fact that Louisville, a very good team when faced with zone defenses, had to deal with Michigan State chest-to-chest had a lot to do with the end result.
“I told the coaches this before the game, what worried me the most, the last seven games we just got zones and we haven't played against man-to-man in so long,” said Coach Pitino after the game. “The three Big East games, Villanova played a little bit of man, Providence was all zone, and West Virginia was all zone [at West Virginia] before that. I think going back to the Marquette game was the last time we've seen man. The whole tournament has been zone for us.”
The first half saw the Spartans carve up Louisville’s attacking 2-3 zone with senior center Goran Suton going off for seventeen points (7-for-10 FG; 3-for-3 3PT). No other Spartan scored more than four points in the first half, but Suton’s ability to exploit the high post combined with taking care of the basketball had Michigan State in a good position heading into the final twenty minutes.
The second half was all about toughness, a trait synonymous with Tom Izzo’s program since the day he took over in East Lansing. Michigan State outrebounded Louisville by eleven and received eighteen points from the bench. “Players play, but tough players win,” said guard Kalin Lucas. “That was our mindset today, was just to go out and out-tough 'em. That's something we did do today.” Next up for Michigan State is what basically amounts to a home game, with Ford Field being just ninety miles away from the East Lansing campus. And with everyone now healthy who’s to say that the Big Ten champions can’t win two more games?
“But I said to our media that, you know, we still have a ceiling to get better,” said Coach Izzo. “I said that for about a month now because of our injuries. I still think we have a ceiling to get better. I feel a lot like [Villanova head coach] Jay Wright said the other night: we're still making some improvements.”
Despite low-scoring games from Tyler Hansbrough and Wayne Ellington, North Carolina rolls to a record eighteenth Final Four.
Hansbrough and Ellington combined for thirteen points, a number that would mean a loss for most teams. “If you had given me those stats before the game, I'd have thought it was going to be a tough afternoon, no question about that,” said head coach Roy Williams. But the Tar Heels aren’t like most teams, possessing a dizzying array of offensive weapons that can burn opponents on any given night. Ty Lawson and Danny Green were the most lethal, burning Oklahoma for a combined thirty-seven points. It didn’t help matters for Jeff Capel’s team that his starting backcourt combined to go 9-for-29 from the field.
Tony Crocker, who lit up Syracuse on Friday with a career-high twenty-eight points, was 0-for-5 from behind the arc and finished for just four points. Willie Warren did finish with eighteen, but the majority of those tallies came when nothing was in doubt outside of the final margin. Oklahoma also did a poor job of taking care of the basketball, with sixteen turnovers to just nine assists. Thanks to Blake Griffin (23 points, 16 rebounds) the Sooners dominated points in the paint (44-26) and second-chance points (14-6). But the superiority of Carolina’s backcourt rendered those edges moot.
“I thought the game would have been a lot more interesting if we could have made some shots, and I thought we had some really good looks,” said Coach Capel. “But that's the way basketball goes sometimes. Unfortunately, it happened today.” Oklahoma was lucky to be down just nine at the half (32-23) due to their poor shooting (36.4% FG; 0-for-9 3PT) and North Carolina scoring thirteen points off of turnovers. And as the drought continued in the second half it became quite apparent that North Carolina had too many options for the cold Sooners to keep up with.
The Tar Heels shot 62% from the field in the second half, a testament not only to their ability to make shots but also find the right shots. “They're incredibly efficient. That's kind of been the trademark of North Carolina's program if you look throughout the history,” noted Capel. “From Coach Smith to Coach Guthridge, and now Coach Williams, they've always been incredibly efficient.” That ability on offense presents Villanova a tremendous challenge in next Saturday’s national semifinal.
Players of the Day: Michigan State center Goran Suton (19 points, 10 rebounds and four assists) and North Carolina guard Ty Lawson (19 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists and three steals)
Team of the Day: Michigan State (Spartans now get to enjoy some home-cooking next weekend)
Clutch Performance of the Day: North Carolina guard/forward Danny Green (6-for-9, 18 points)
Quote of the Day: “I know he stuck to his promise, what he was going to give to us. So I was thanking God for [allowing me to be] around [a] man like that who is going to stick to his promises and give our team everything he can give if we give him what we can give.” - Michigan State senior guard Travis Walton on his postgame reaction
Sunday’s Results (Regional Finals)
Midwest (Indianapolis): #2 Michigan State 64, #1 Louisville 52
South (Memphis): # North Carolina 72, #2 Oklahoma 60
National Semifinals (in Detroit, Saturday April 4th)
#2 Michigan State vs. #1 Connecticut, 6:07 PM EST
#3 Villanova vs. #1 North Carolina, 8:47 PM EST