Well, we are down to the last two teams standing. And I think we are in for an awesome scene at Ford Field on Monday night.
More than 70,000 fans will converge upon Ford Field, and my guess is that three of every four will be wearing green, and/or pulling for Michigan State. Many are Spartans fans all the time. Others will be moved by MSU's Big Ten affiliation, and some will side with the Spartans because they are the underdog. But their representing the city of Detroit and the state of Michigan during such difficult economic times on such a grand stage will tug at the hearts of the casual fan and add another compelling story line to the game.
Before Saturday's games, I walked around the corridors of Ford Field to get a "fan's feel" of the atmosphere. It was absolutely awesome and electrifying! The buzz and excitement were palpable. And the first-time configuration of the court in the middle of the football field at a Final Four was surprisingly intimate and festive. Having thousands of students from all four schools around the court was quite cool, too. It looked and felt great. Kudos to the NCAA.
Michigan State has had as impressive a run in the tournament as any team I can recall in recent memory. Overcoming injuries and illness to key players throughout the season and knocking off a pair of No. 1 seeds from the Big East is special. But North Carolina has been quite impressive, too. The Tar Heels have overcome adversity as well to reach this point. Injuries to key players and the suspension of another are part of their story. Both teams have handled adversity and played at a high level throughout the tournament. I expect a competitive and exciting championship game.
In my first year being courtside with Jim Nantz, we have called every one of North Carolina's tournament games. Offensively the Tar Heels epitomize "spurtability" -- lots of points in short spurts -- but it is the improving defense the past few weeks that has been most impressive. North Carolina has done a very solid job of containing dribble penetration and challenging shots. That will have to continue Monday night. Offensively, the Tar Heels can kill opponents softly with "timely triples"; go inside and "punish w/power"; or "terrorize in transition."
Michigan State's strength is its defense and depth. The Spartans are athletic and tough on the perimeter and frontline. Tom Izzo will play nine to 11 players. By doing so, his team maintains its defensive intensity, and all who play are confident they can contribute and expect to do so. Michigan State is best in transition but executes well in the halfcourt, too. I expect the pace to be brisk.
Some things to look for:
• How much will MSU look to push the pace? I think Michigan State has to run and look for early and easy scoring chances as much as possible, but it also has to try to slow North Carolina down some. To do that effectively, the Spartans have to have a low turnover game, knock down some perimeter shots and get on the offensive glass. They also have to sprint back every time on defense, especially after made baskets. How the pace of the game is managed will be interesting to watch.
• Ty Lawson vs. MSU's defense. I anticipate Travis Walton having this assignment, but Kalin Lucas could have him some, too. Lawson's strength, balance, "rush-hour" handle and his ability to run the fast break, break down opposing defenses with dribble penetration and knock down the perimeter shot make him the top point guard in the country. When he has played well, North Carolina has not lost.
• PIP (points in paint). Which team can win the battle close to the hoop? It will be physical inside, and the team that can be physical and tough inside without excessive fouling gains an advantage in a key area.
• Spurtability vs. spurt-proof. North Carolina is a classic "spurtability" team. And the Tar Heels usually have three to four dynamic spurts per game. The offensive weapons are so vast and varied it's hard to shut them down. Ellington, Green and Lawson are all lethal 3-point shooters. Hansbrough, Davis and Thompson can do damage inside. It's almost pick your poison. The spurt-proof recipe for MSU is a combination of defending the arc (3s really ignite spurts), taking good shots and making a good percentage of them and using timeouts effectively.
• Crowd effect. There is a powerful current of electricity and support pulsing through the home-state Spartans that is undeniable. And it could be helpful to MSU, especially if the game is close late. North Carolina's ability to put the mute button on the partisan crowd will be something to keep an eye on.
Enjoy the game, everyone!