Posted by BrianBoru at 4/5/2009 2:56 AM EDT
Continuing their improbable run through the NCAA Tournament the Michigan State Spartans upset the Connecticut Huskies in the first game of the Final Four.
The Spartans, an industrious group of athletes who precisely exemplify the personality of their head coach, Tom Izzo, terrorized the Huskies at their own game.
Izzo's players are both feisty and selfless, forming a cohesive unit of success. No player demonstrates those traits better than suffocating defensive wizard Travis Walton. Walton is a thankless player who dutifully accepts the unenviable assignment of guarding the opposing team’s best offensive player.
A perfect example of this came during the second half in which Walton draped Huskies forward Jeff Adrien. Drawing the ire of the prickly Adrien while committing the foul, Walton was not baited into fisticuffs with his counterpart. Instead, he wisely opted to allow his play do the talking. Oh, he certainly barked at Adrien, letting him know he wasn’t going to stand for being blatantly shoved to the floor, but he realized that his stifling defense had crept into the mind of his opponent. And that alone was ample retribution.
Across the way Jim Calhoun must have been puzzled that his team, sporting such a generous amount of high-flying athletes, could be rendered helpless by the unheralded Spartans. And that’s what Michigan State does to you: they take you entirely out of your game plan. You want to run? Well, we will just put a stop to that. How does lockdown man-to-man defense, complete with a wave of fresh reinforcements off the bench sound? That's the beauty of a Tom Izzo team - they can adjust.
Izzo cleverly chose to play up-tempo early, thereby eliminating shot-blocking force Hasheem Thabeet from the game plan. Tugging at his shorts early and often, Thabeet could not keep up with the accelerated pace of the game.
Fittingly, the play of the game belonged to Detroit native Durrell Summers. Racing up the court after collecting a rebound, Summers had one defender between himself and the basket – Huskies forward Stanley Robinson. Watching the play unfold I expected Summers to fling a layup over the outstretched arm of Robinson. He didn’t. Soaring above the flailing Robinson - Summers threw down a powerful dunk. Luckily, Robinson’s arm managed to escape injury.
In the evening’s second Final Four contest…the North Carolina Tarheels cruised to an easy victory over the Villanova Wildcats.
The Wildcats performed as poorly as I’ve seen them play all season, connecting on just five three-point shots in 27 attempts. Too often the Tarheels probed the unusually porous ‘Nova defense.
Villanova guard Scottie Reynolds reverted to a spell of cold shooting and poor decisions which have plagued him throughout periods of his career. Having watched Reynolds during several games this year, I am reminded of former Notre Dame guard Chris Thomas. Just as Thomas was, Reynolds can be both terrific and maddening in the same game.
Of course, without Reynolds' heroics against Pitt, the 'Cats would not have been in the Final Four.
Villanova is a small team whose success is predicated upon their tremendous quickness and ability to defend, as well as hitting from the outside.
Despite out-rebounding the Tarheels, the Wildcats allowed too many crucial offensive rebounds to fall into the hands of their opponent.
Perhaps the most alarming statistic of the evening: seven rebounds credited to North Carolina’s Bobby Frasor. Frasor, a pedestrian backup guard, out-hustled the Villanova players on several key possessions - each time when it seemed the Wildcats were set to take off on a run.
Darting through defenders all night torpedo-like point guard Ty Lawson controlled the game throughout. Lawson is the best player remaining in the Final Four. In fact, Lawson was probably the best player entering the NCAA Tournament. I’d give him the slight nod ahead of Blake Griffin because point guards tend to directly influence the course of the game more than forwards.
In any event, it will be interesting to see how well he handles the relentless defensive pressure he will face on Monday evening. Michigan State will run scores of players at him in hopes of breaking North Carolina’s spirit. For if you can take away Lawson, Carolina is mortal.
Prediction: North Carolina will win by four.