Monday Night Mayhem: Tar Heels, Spartans Square Off in Motor City Madness
Writer's Log: Stardate, Dec. 3, 2008. Location: Ford Field in Detroit, Michigan. Event: North Carolina Tar Heels vs. Michigan State Spartans.
The Detroit Lions were heading to immortality (in a bad way). The Pistons were on the verge of snagging arguably one of the best players in the NBA (though his attitude won't show that). The Red Wings were being their usual selves (which makes every other NHL team irk from the inside). And the Tigers were trying to figure out what went wrong in the off-season.
Yes, Detroit was a dismal place at times, but somehow, it wasn't as dismal as when they looked at the scoreboard as they exited Ford Field following a Clash of two college basketball Titans.
Final Score: North Carolina 98, Michigan State 63
The Tar Heels marched into Detroit and decimated Big Ten powerhouse Michigan State in their own backyard.
But times have changed now...and we fast forward to five months after the drubbing.
Here we are in a familiar place (Ford Field) with some familiar teams (UNC & Michigan State) and some familiar faces (Raymar Morgan and Tyler Hansbrough) to settle an old score...with an M. Night Shyamalan style twist.
This time, it's not just about pride. This time, it's not just about bragging rights. This time, it's not just about respect or redemption.
This time, it's about the National Championship.
On Monday, April 6, two days after the Final Four, and one day after the 25th Anniversary of WrestleMania, the two final teams standing in the Pool of '65 will battle one more time for college basketball supremacy.
There has not been a game of this magnitude since the infamous NC Game between Eric Montross and the Tar Heels and the Michigan Wolverines and the infamous Fab Five.
But in that game, it was a mental error that led to Dean Smith cutting down the nets and winning a National Championship. Tom Izzo hasn't been in this position since 2000, when his infamous Spartans won the National Championship thanks to the physical play of Morris Peterson and Mateen Cleaves.
But again, we fast forward to present day.
North Carolina: The Rulers of Tobacco Road
The Tar Heels didn't win the ACC Tournament, and after getting upset by Florida State, many wondered if Tyler Hansbrough would fall short once again of his goal to hoist college basketball's richest prize.
But Hansbrough and the Heels proved in impressive fashion that they are more than capable of snagging victory from the jaws of defeat. Their road started against Radford and ended with Villanova:
vs. Radford, Pool of 65 (101-58)
vs. LSU, Catch-32 (84-70)
vs. Gonzaga, Sweet 16 (98-77)
vs. Oklahoma, Elite Eight (72-60)
vs. Villanova, Final Four (83-69)
Following their win this past weekend, many started changing their tune about the Tar Heels. The 2009 owners of Tobacco Road practically dominated every game they played in this year's tournament. And take Blake Griffin to the limit is no easy task, so that in itself is enough to garner some attention.
Michigan State: THIS IS SPARTA!!
"Madness? This is SPARTA!!"
"Spartans! Prepare for Glory!"
Who would have ever thought that these famous words would have so much meaning at the beginning of April. In all honesty, Michigan State has lived this season by those very phrases courtesy of King Leonidas from the movie, "300."
The Spartans fell short of the Big Ten Tournament Title during the tournament, but they were not distraught about it. In fact, Tom Izzo's deal with his team provided enough motivation for them continue fighting. We know that win or lose, Tom Izzo's hair is going bye-bye at season's end.
But before the Spartans can enjoy the thought of watching their beloved coach lose his prized hair, they had to show why they were considered one of the most dangerous teams in the tournament this year. And those boys from the Boxing Glove State didn't disappoint:
vs. Robert Morris, Pool of 65 (77-62)
vs. USC, Catch-32 (74-69)
vs. Kansas, Sweet 16 (67-62)
vs. Louisville, Elite Eight (64-52)
vs. UConn, Final Four (82-73)
The Spartans have fought hard to get to this point. We all know how tough it is to take down the Big East. But Michigan State managed to do it not once, but twice. After stunning Big East Champs Louisville, they went on to silence Jim Calhoun and his "almighty" UConn Huskies.
In the Spartans case, be afraid. Be very afraid.
So who has the advantage on Monday night?
If you want physicality, this is it. These two teams love to play physical, which is something that some teams aren't used to.
For Michigan State, it's obvious who the man to take down is as far as UNC goes: Ty Lawson. Now how many were eying Hansbrough as the man to keep in check. Actually the Spartans should keep Lawson and Hansbrough in check...or at least get them into foul trouble early.
The Spartans will need to control the paint and keep the Heels from controlling the inside. They might have to win this game at the free throw line, but they have been pretty impressive from the line as well as the arc during this tournament. Mental toughness is everything this time around.
They have to get that Drubbing Of December out of their heads and focus on the task at hand: Defeat Carolina, and don't let history repeat itself.
Travis Walton vs. Ty Lawson will be the most intriguing match-up of this tournament mainly because it's the battle of the nation's best point guard and nation's best defender. On the lighter side, Goran Suton vs. Tyler Hansbrough is a pretty good match as well. Both men are impressive when it comes to being big men on their teams.
If Hansbrough is the Tim Tebow of College Basketball, does that make Suton the Sam Bradford of college ball?
For North Carolina, they have to keep doing what got them this far in the tournament. With Lawson back in the lineup, Carolina has been virtually unstoppable to this point. Hansbrough has carried this team on his back, but Lawson has provided the crutch necessary for the Heels to stay in step with their opponents.
For the Heels to win on Monday, they will need to force Michigan State to make a mistake. But that is not an easy task. Michigan State executed on UConn's main weakness: Inability to foul in the paint. Carolina loves to drive hard to the hoop and hope that someone gets physical with them.
This game has all the makings of a slugfest.
And the winner of the hardware is...
As this tournament clearly has shown, this tournament was full of its share of upsets. When Memphis lost to Mizzou, John Calipari jumped from Conference USA to the SEC. When Arizona's glass slipper couldn't fit anymore, they were Desperately Seeking Coaches.
Now that UConn can focus on its scandal, and 'Nova can improve on their success in this year's tournament, the spotlight is on the final two standing.
For the Spartans, it's all about Home Field Advantage. The fact that they're playing in their own backyard (Michigan) and playing in familiar territory (Ford Field), the Spartans may need to get the crowd into it. It's clear that the percentage of Tar Heels Fans to Spartans Fans will be staggering considering where they are.
To quote a famous movie: "Win the crowd. Win your freedom."
For the Heels, it's all about what got you here. The Heels defeated an injury riddled Spartans team back in December in this exact place. But the biggest statistic is that we didn't get the chance to see Suton lock up with Hansbrough. This time around, all the major players are here for this year's edition of Fight Club.
But it's no longer Fight Club. The fight has moved out of the basement and is now called Project Mayhem. But to change one rule: First Rule of Project Mayhem is unleash hell right from the opening tip.
With that said, I give a slight edge to the home team...in this case Michigan State.
But I'm not giving them the game on a silver platter. With all due respect to the Spartans, their magical run ends this Monday night. As good as the Spartans are, I think this episode of Deja Vu will have a closer, but same, result as their last meeting.
If Hansbrough is the Tebow of college basketball, then he will have his chance to prove that Monday night.
The role of Tim Tebow will be played by Tyler Hansbrough. The role of Percy Harvin will be played by Ty Lawson. Can Suton and the Spartans finish their quest with the glory of being named National Champions? Or is this the time when "Anything is Possible"?
Don't look at me. I'm no psychic...I'm just a writer.
Final Predict Score: North Carolina 87, Michigan State 82