Much of what has been written in the last 36 hours about tonight’s UNC-Michigan St. showdown in the national title game has applied liberally the use of the word “destiny.” And on the surface, we can understand some of the hyperbole. Detroit, in fact the entire state of Michigan, is going through hard times. Harder than the rest of us, at least. MSU, personified by its tough-as-nails coach who also happens to be one of the very best preparation NCAA coaches of all-time, has gutted and clawed its way back from multiple injuries this year to put together a Big Ten regular season championship season and two straight victories over #1 seeds from the very talented Big East Conference. The game is 92 miles from their campus, and roughly 80% of the available 75,000 seats are expected to be filled with green-and-white clad Spartan fans. Their opponent, UNC, was the prohibitive favorite prior to the season and came into the Tournament as the prohibitive favorite once again (both in the pools and in Vegas). When the two teams played in this same venue 126 days ago, Carolina looked like it possibly could become the greatest team in the history of history, as it eviscerated, immolated and annihilated Sparty by a score of 98-63. Despite MSU’s 27-4 record since that point (not dissimilar than UNC’s 25-4 in the same interim), there’s a perception that this is still a team of underdogs, fighting for their town, their neighbors, their state.
So the narrative seems clear: the NCAA Tournament, the most magical postseason event in all of sports, filled with glorious upsets that have become de riguer in the national consciousness, will once again work its sorcery tonight in Detroit. Michigan State’s gutty bunch of tough guys who happen to play a little ball will bring home the golden crystal trophy in front of its adoring fans, sorely in need of a caffeinated jolt of good fortune to rally around.
The problem is… it’s not gonna happen.
If there’s a Team of Destiny in this year’s Tournament, it’s the team residing in a state that has also gotten hit fairly hard by the downswing of the textile, banking and tobacco industries. More contextually, Carolina’s destiny was secured on June 6, 2008, when Ty Lawson, who at the time was leaning toward staying in the NBA Draft, was picked up by Chapel Hill police for ‘drinking while driving,’ a head-scratching offense that may have put just enough doubt in Lawson’s mind about his being a certain first-rounder on draft day.
So he came back to Carolina, and like dominoes, so did Wayne Ellington and Danny Green. Tyler Hansbrough wasn’t ever leaving, and suddenly Roy Williams enjoyed a fortuitous situation where a majority of his Final Four team was returning while every other major contender (Kansas, Memphis, UCLA) was getting parceled up like an auction for engine parts. It’s not just the players who returned, mind you, it’s also how they’ve improved as this season (which could have been their rookie years)has progressed.
For the fake Team of Destiny to defeat the real Team of Destiny tonight, three things ALL have to happen. If any one of these three things doesn’t happen, Carolina assuredly will cut down the nets. The likelihood of any one thing happening is good; of two things happening is not-so-good; and all three, damn near impossible. Still, these are the three things…
1) Travis Walton must get into Ty Lawson’s head. Good luck with that. Lawson is generally unflappable, having committed a ridiculously low six turnovers in 128 minutes of play over four NCAA Tournament games. Granted, four of those were against Villanova, but he also dished out eight assists and had 22 pts in that game. Walton, who has harassed AJ Price (5-20) and Terrence Williams (1-7) into terrible games the last two outings, will this time be at a quickness disadvantage. If he (and by proxy, Izzo) can figure out a way to slow down the mercurial Lawson, then the Spartans will have a chance. In three of Carolina’s four losses this season, Lawson shot the ball poorly (~33%) and he turned the ball over at least four times per game.
2) MSU must dominate the boards. Where MSU excels, they must continue to do so. Izzo’s Spartans are the #1 reb% team in America, securing 58% of all caroms. In the game against UNC in December, the Heels actually won the battle of the boards in addition to the score (40-39). But in the Spartans’ most recent two games, they dominated Louisville and played even with the super-sized UConn frontline through hustle and aggressiveness. Michigan St. will need a +10 rebounding margin with multiple second-shot opportunities to win this game.
3) The Spartans Need Others to Step Up. Against Louisville, it was Goran Suton’s 19/10; against UConn, it was Korie Lucious’ three treys off the bench in the first half. The Spartans will need someone unexpected to provide offensive punch against a team that is going to score 70+ points against them. Tom Izzo has a multitude of options, including Draymond Green, Durrell Summers, Chris Allen and Marquise Gray, but he’s going to absolutely have to have one or more of these players contributing points for his team to have a fighting chance tonight.
Assuming Michigan St. accomplishes all three of these things, they’ll have a chance to win tonight’s title game. Three of UNC’s four losses were one-possession Ls, so it’s impossible extremely unlikely the Heels will lay an egg and get blown out tonight, no matter what happens. But like we said above, the odds of all three of these occurrences happening simultaneously tonight are not good. MSU should feel great about its accomplishments this season, but the ony Team of Destiny for 2009 is going to take another trophy back to the party on Franklin Street tonight.