Season Rewind: North Carolina's closest game in the tournament thus far came against Oklahoma, a 12-point victory; the Tar Heels have cruised through all of their games, and not faced any kind of close finish. LSU was the only team to stay with them in the second half, but a stretch run easily put the Tigers away. Michigan St. has had to survive a couple of late challenges, as games with both USC and Kansas came down to the final minutes. The Spartans' last two games saw them pull away from quality Big East teams, and they will have 70,000 partisan fans at their back in this game.
There's not a whole lot that can be learned from the December blowout, especially since Michigan St. was playing without big man Goran Suton at the time. The Heels shot nearly 50% from the field in that game, while holding Michigan St. to just 35%, but the biggest difference was probably turnovers, as UNC committed just 9 to the Spartans' 21. Tyler Hansbrough went off for 25-and-11, but he'll find the going more difficult inside with Suton in the game.
UNC O vs Michigan St D: North Carolina has the country's best offense; shooting well from long-range, but getting most of its chances inside the arc, especially in transition. The Heels also do an excellent job of holding onto the ball and are strong on the offensive glass, meaning that they manage to convert most of their possessions into high-percentage chances. Even when their shooting is only average, as it was in the Villanova game, their ability in other offensive areas allows them to stay fairly efficient. Based on its performance over the first 30 games, Michigan St. should have trouble defending the interior, but they've defended the paint excellently during the tournament. They held UConn under 45% and Louisville under 40% on two-point shots. The really positive thing for the Spartans is that these two games were played at very different paces, suggesting that they'll be comfortable at a wide range of speeds. They should cause trouble for UNC on perimeter shots, and will face a tough battle on the defensive glass, but their ability to control the Heels' chances in transition will be key.
Michigan St O vs UNC D: Tom Izzo's teams have a reputation for being strong on the glass, and this year's offense is no exception, getting back 41% of its missed shots. The problem is that there are often a lot of misses, as the Spartans shoot under 50% inside the arc, where the majority of their shots are taken. However, North Carolina is not particularly good at defending the glass, including allowing Villanova to grab nearly 40% of misses on Saturday night. While turnovers were decisive in the first game, the Heels haven't forced that many in the NCAA tournament, and likely won't get the same magnitude of advantage in this game. North Carolina has been strong defending shots over the last few games, including holding Villanova to just 33% from the field, and allowing just 14-of-69 from behind the arc in its last three games. With a rebounding deficit a likely possibility, keeping up this defensive effort will be critical to keeping the Michigan St. offense under wraps.
UNC Lineup: No player in the country is as efficient as UNC's Ty Lawson, who can score inside and outside and runs the Carolina offense like clockwork. He's the best player left in the tournament, and Carolina's title hopes will be heavily tied to his performance. He was the game's top scorer against Villanova, and came within range of a triple-double, a feat he also came close to in the first Michigan St. game. Tyler Hansbrough leads the Heels in scoring and rebounding, and has been solid at generating inside shots and chances from the line without turning the ball over. His offensive game hasn't been that great of late, but he's still a significant threat, and Michigan St. will need to do a better job of containing him than in the teams' first encounter. Junior Wayne Ellington is another excellent scoring option who shoots very well and doesn't make a lot of mistakes. He wasn't great against Oklahoma (his lone off game in weeks), but lit up Villanova from behind the arc. Danny Green is a good long-distance shooter, while Deon Thompson doesn't chip in with a lot of offense, but is solid when called upon. Ed Davis could be a very important player in controlling the Spartans on the boards: he has the team's best rebounding rate. His offensive game is still a work in progress, but the advantage he can provide inside is significant.
Michigan St Lineup: I'm far from the biggest fan of Michigan St.'s Kalin Lucas (Gus Johnson is..), but he stepped up when it mattered by scoring a game-high 21 against UConn. Lucas leads the Spartans in scoring and assists, and does a pretty good job of ball control, but his shooting can be suspect, barely at 40% from the field over the season. When he's hitting threes, as he did on Saturday, that makes up for his poor shooting inside, but when he isn't, he can end up wasting shots. The difference maker between the two meetings could very well be Goran Suton. Suton led the Big Ten in rebounding, and while he did little against UConn inside, he was very effective in Indianapolis, where he averaged nearly 20 points over the two games. Raymar Morgan answered all the questions about his fitness with an excellent 18-and-9 performance, which was further complemented by his career-high five steals. He was the only player to give UNC trouble in the first game, and will need a repeat performance to give Michigan St. a chance. Beyond these three, a fairly deep group of reasonably effective bench players get a good chunk of minutes for Michigan St., giving Tom Izzo a lot of potential options. Sophomore Durrell Summers is the team's most effective long-range shooter, while freshman Delvon Roe is a good inside scorer and rebounder who has had trouble finding a consistent offensive level and struggles at the free throw line. These two combined for 14 rebounds against the Huskies. 6-2 Travis Walton is a good ball distributor who leads the team in steals, while taking almost all of his shots from inside the arc. Sophomore Chris Allen puts up a lot of shots, but misses a ton. Korie Lucious scored 11 points in just 8 minutes against UConn, and Draymond Green has also chipped in effectively.
In Sum: I'll admit that before taking a hard look at the numbers and the individual matchups, I'd written off the Spartans, but after analyzing the game, there's definitely reason for Michigan St. fans to be optimistic. They will cause Carolina serious trouble on the glass and have defended the inside well against quality opponents. Still, I think the Tar Heels have too much offensive talent, and that their pace of play will be able to unsettle the Spartans in a way that UConn couldn't. North Carolina has also shown a fair share of defensive ability recently, and will be able to stop Michigan St. often enough to cut down the nets.
Winner: North Carolina Margin: 5-9