We’re here. After five months of winnowing down 341 college basketball teams, we’ve got four teams left standing – UNC, UConn, Michigan St. and Villanoa. None of the four are surprises (although Villanova probably didn’t expect to be here) but all four are worthy candidates for the crown of 2009 National Champion. Let’s break down both games for you, and keep in mind that we’ll be running our usual Boom Goes the Dynamite starting about a half-hour before tip at 5:30pm EDT. See you then…
Dave Zeitlin and John Stevens contributed to this report.
Michigan State (30-6) vs. Connecticut (31-4)
Ford Field, Detroit, MI
Saturday, 6:07 p.m.
Tale of the Tape
ROAD TO DETROIT: Michigan State got by Robert Morris, then knocked off a series of highly athletic teams in USC, Kansas, and Louisville, the last of which destroyed a lot of brackets. Connecticut enjoyed their time in Philadelphia, just throttling Chattanooga and Texas A&M, then outlasted Purdue and Missouri. Advantage: MSU.
COACHES: Two of the biggest and baddest in the business, here. Both have championships to their credit. Izzo has to get his team fired up and prepared for what is basically a home game. Not to question his mental toughness (it’s certainly iron-clad), but Calhoun and staff know that all that awaits them, even if they were to win a title, is more talk about this Nate Miles recruiting thing, and maybe the occasional rogue “journalist.” Izzo’s got it better. Advantage: MSU (but just barely)
BACKCOURT: Kalin Lucas is military-quick and has a couple of fine supporters in Chris Allen and Durrell Summers, but A.J. Price has been superb in the tournament and he’s gotten more than sufficient assistance from Kemba Walker and Craig Austrie. I never thought a team could lose Jerome Dyson and still have a backcourt advantage, but that’s how good the UConn guards are. Advantage: UConn
FRONTCOURT: MSU has one of the best backcourt duos in the game with Raymar Morgan and Goran Suton. Suton seems to get better every game, since he came back from his injury. The problem is, what awaits them is what could be the best frontcourt in the country with Hasheem Thabeet, the inestimable Jeff Adrien, and the underrated Stanley Robinson. Watch the frontcourt battle between these two teams. It’ll be glorious. This is one closer than you might think, but…Advantage: UConn
BENCH: Michigan State utilizes their bench much more than Connecticut; the Spartan bench contributes a full 10% more to MSU’s total scoring than UConn’s (35% to 25%), and they’ll come off the bench with 1-2 more players than UConn on the whole. Advantage: MSU
STYLE OF PLAY: This has been billed as UConn’s speed and fast-break attack versus Michigan State’s slower, plodding style. Be careful, there. UConn averages about 78 points/game, but MSU averages about 72. Both teams have good guards and versatile big men. You might hear that whoever controls the tempo will win this game, but both of these teams have the ability to play at any speed. The winner will be determined by nothing more profound than defense and shot selection. Advantage: Even
X-FACTOR: The freshmen. Delvon Roe and Kemba Walker are significant contributors for MSU and UConn (respectively), to say the least. How will they handle the Final Four stage? Advantage: Even
AURA: Connecticut comes in here with the most mystique, so to speak. They blew out their first two opponents and they’re one of those teams that can deliver a Joe Louis-like knockout punch in short order; seriously, you can lose focus for 45 seconds and by the time you look up, UConn’s got you down 14 and they’ve turned on the full court press. Michigan State paper-cuts you to death with physicality and efficiency on offense, like a tennis player who uses a lot of slices and drop shots, then blows a single 150-mph forehand by you. No real difference, here. Advantage: Even
KARMA: Well, as noted above, UConn has this whole Nate Miles thing I know they’d like to forget, at least for now. MSU must be living right, having made it to the F4 in virtually their backyard. Advantage: MSU
MASCOT: Spartans were trained in the art of war from the age of seven and were so good at it, they considered archery an “unmanly” means of warfare. Huskies are dogs. Cool dogs, cold-weather dogs, high-stamina dogs. But this game will be an actual war. Gotta go with Sparty. Advantage: MSU
RIVALRY: MSU-Michigan is only slightly more relevant these days than UConn-UMass. But still…Advantage: MSU
FAMOUS BASKETBALL ALUMNI: I love Ray Allen, Richard Hamilton, Emeka Okafor, Donyell Marshall, and Cliff Robinson as much as anyone. Great basketball players and ambassadors, all. But added together, they don’t equal the plastic end of Magic Johnson’s left shoestring. Advantage: MSU
FAMOUS NON-BASKETBALL ALUMNI: You could probably include Magic in this category as well, given all he’s done outside the realm of basketball. But we won’t do that. UConn has…Meg Ryan? Moby? MSU can boast James Caan and a man by the name of, uh, James P. Hoffa. I’m not messin’ with that. Advantage: MSU
PREDICTION: It’s the feature game of the Final Four (despite being the first game). If Connecticut fans think they can crank up the pace and run MSU out of the gym, think again. Michigan State will run with you. They have the athletes. and they’re the runningest (forgive me) team in the Big Ten, for what that’s worth. This has all the makings of a classic. It involves two teams whose similarities actually outnumber their differences, despite conventional wisdom. We’ve got legendary coaches, fantastic guards, excellent frontlines, and the biggest stage our sport has. I definitely wouldn’t be surprised to see some extra time played in this one. But in the end, in a great one, Connecticut just has too many options on offense. The Huskies get it done, 81-77.
Villanova (30-7) vs. North Carolina (32-4)
Ford Field, Detroit, MI
Saturday, 8:47 p.m.
Tale of the Tape
ROAD TO DETROIT: Villanova, the No. 3 seed in the East Region, survived against American, throttled UCLA, humbled Duke and then stunned top-seeded Pittsburgh with THE play of the entire tournament – a coast-to-coast runner from Scottie Reynolds in the final second. North Carolina, the No. 1 seed in the South, had little trouble with Radford, LSU, Gonzaga and Oklahoma on its way to the Final Four. Advantage: Nova.
COACHES: The affable, well-dressed Jay Wright is on the verge of cracking the elite echelon of college basketball head coaches. Roy Williams is already there. Advantage: UNC.
BACKCOURT: ‘Nova junior guard Scottie Reynolds had been up-and-down during this tournament before delivering one of the greatest endings in NCAA history. Ty Lawson has been virtually unstoppable since coming back from his toe injury – and Danny Green and Wayne Ellington are pretty darn good, too. Advantage: UNC.
FRONTCOURT: Forward Dante Cunningham leads Villanova in scoring (16.2 ppg) and rebounding (7.4 ppg). But he’s obviously not at the same level as four-time All-American Tyler Hansbrough. Advantage: UNC.
BENCH: Villanova’s bench may be relatively short but Corey Stokes and Corey Fisher can hit shots and spread a defense, while Antonio Pena can bang inside. Veteran guard Bobby Frasor and 7-foot freshman Tyler Zeller may both play big roles for the Heels. Advantage: Villanova.
STYLE OF PLAY: ‘Nova has kicked it old school during its NCAA run, suffocating teams with its defense and toughness. UNC boasts maybe the best offense in the land. Advantage: The public.
X-FACTOR: Reggie Redding may not be flashy, but the smart, defensive hound has been vital to Villanova’s success and is a favorite of Coach Wright. (He threw the inbounds pass to kickstart the game-winning play against Pitt in the Elite Eight.) Everything is falling into place for Danny Green, who will finally get to play in front of his father. Advantage: Even.
AURA: If you’ve watched any of Villanova’s tournament games, you’ve seen the camera fixated on former coach Rollie Massimino, who led the Wildcats to one of the great championship-game upsets in 1985. Rollie will be there for Saturday’s game, as will probably every other player, coach, cheerleader, band member, fan, booster and groupie from that ’85 team. The Tar Heels, meanwhile, booked their ticket to the Final Four by winning its record 100th tournament game. Advantage: Nova.
KARMA: Villanova was knocked out of the 2005 tournament by UNC thanks to a phantom travel call on Allan Ray. The ‘Cats remember. The Tar Heels’ road to redemption started when Hansbrough and company did the unthinkable by passing up the NBA draft to avenge last year’s first-half debacle against Kansas in the Final Four and win a national title. Advantage: UNC.
MASCOT: A wildcat is a hunter of small mammals, birds and Ginyards. A Tar Heel is apparently derived from North Carolina’s 18th-century prominence as a tar and pitch producer, but their mascot is a ram. I’m confused. Advantage: Nova.
RIVALRY: Dick Vitale may or may not be wearing pants when he broadcasts Duke-UNC games. When Villanova and Saint Joseph’s hook up, it’s referred to as the “Holy War.” Advantage: UNC.
FAMOUS BASKETBALL ALUMNI: Was Kerry Kittles as good as Michael Jordan? How about if Kerry Kittles drank Michael Jordan’s Secret Stuff? Advantage: UNC.
FAMOUS NON-BASKETBALL ALUMNI: Don McLean dropped out of Villanova after four months before writing the immortal American Pie. Speaking of great American things, Moonlight Graham and Peter Gammons both went to North Carolina. That’s an impressive baseball combo. Advantage: UNC.
PREDICTION: North Carolina may beat Villanova nine times out of 10. But as Rick Moranis said in the classic sports movie Little Giants, you just have to win one time. (What, you don’t think Little Giants is a classic?) Villanova keeps its magical run going, 75-74.