Note: This post is from 2009. To view our 2010 March Madness coverage, use the following links:
- March Madness 2010 Schedule, Sites, and Tickets
- MSF Bracket Challenge
- Mens NCAA Tournament Bracket, TV Schedule, Announcers, Spreads
- Midwest Region Bracket Picks, Predictions, TV Schedule, Sites, Announcers
- East Region Bracket Picks, Predictions, TV Schedule, Sites, Announcers
- South Region Bracket Picks, Predictions, TV Schedule, Sites, Announcers
- West Region Bracket Picks, Predictions, TV Schedule, Sites, Announcers
- History of Final Four in Indianapolis
- Women’s NCAA Tournament Schedule, Sites, Tickets
This post will analyze the Michigan State-Connecticut Final Four game using a statistical analysis provided by the Game Predictor at ESPN.com, which is powered by TeamRankings.com. For an analysis of how this program works, hop over to the first individual game Sweet 16 preview I put out for UConn-Purdue. The methodology is all explained there.
This is the Final Four matchup, Michigan State versus UConn, that I picked from the very start. I have to admit that I became less and less confident that it would actually happen as the tournament unfolded, but it has proven a few tournament cliches true:
- Teams with talented, experienced, and battle-tested guards win in March.
- Teams that get consistent production from their low-post players win in March.
- Free throw shooting matters in March.
Michigan State and UConn have not been perfect in these areas through four games, but they have been better and more consistent in these areas than any other team on their side of the bracket. And the reason is the two incredible coaches that are on the sideline: Tom Izzo and Jim Calhoun.
UConn coach Jim Calhoun started his career at Northeastern University in 1972. He remained their coach until 1986 and compiled a 248-137 record. In five out of his last six seasons there, they made the NCAA Tournament, three times advancing to the second round. In 1986, Calhoun took over a struggling Connecticut program and went a combined 13-35 in the Big East during his first three seasons in Storrs. Since then, he has won two national championships, reached the Final Four this year, made five other Elite 8 appearances, four additional Sweet 16 appearances, and earned 556 victories against only 204 losses. Without question, Jim Calhoun is among the top handful of coaches in America today.
Also with him in the handful of top coaches is Tom Izzo of Michigan State. I have made no secret of my basketball-man-crush on Tom Izzo, and the Spartans’ tournament run this season is only reinforcing what I’ve already thought: Tom Izzo is one of the best coaches in America, period. You can debate who is the best, but you better include Izzo in the debate. (And I hope that someday his protege Tom Crean is in the debate as well, but that remains to be seen.)
Just look at the resume Tom Izzo has compiled in East Lansing since taking over for Jud Heathcote in 1995. Izzo is 335-136 and has tied or won the Big Ten conference five times. His true greatness, however, can be seen in the NCAA Tournament.
The Spartans made the NIT during Izzo’s first two years in town, but have made the NCAA Tournament every season since 1997-98. During that span, Izzo and the Spartans have won a national championship (2000), reached the Final Four four other tmes (1999, 2001, 2005, 2009), reached the Elite 8 in 2003, and have been to the Sweet 16 two other times (1998, 2008). The Spartans’ masterful upset stomping of Louisville yesterday in Indianapolis was a microcosm of the tournament greatness that Izzo has consistently displayed at Michigan State.
This Saturday in Detroit, Izzo and the Spartans battle Calhoun and the Huskies for the chance to play for all the marbles on Monday night. UConn and its Big East pedigree are favored, but if we learned anything from this weekend, it is this: don’t count the Spartans out. They knocked off the Big East champions in impressive fashion and will no doubt give UConn all it can handle.
Let’s take a look at the particulars and then break down the game itself.
Michigan State-UConn Final Four Preview and Prediction
- Tickets: 2009 Final Four Tickets from StubHub
- Final Four Quick Preview
- Final Four Date: Saturday, April 4th
- TV: CBS (or March Madness On Demand)
- MSU-UConn Game Time: 6:07 PM ET
- Location: Ford Field in Detroit, MI
- Announcers: Jim Nantz and Clark Kellogg
- Spread: Connecticut -4.5
- Over-Under: 135
- ESPN Team Pages: Michigan State Spartans | Connecticut Huskies
(FYI…the above spread and over-under are from BetUs on 3/30 at 7:45 am, so you may want to check there for the most up-to-date info if you see this later in the week. I don’t know where ESPN gets the spread info listed below that is used on the Game Predictor.)
And now, it’s time to analyze this matchup.
As you know, I have been using the ESPN Game Predictor to analyze every game since the Sweet 16 started. Based on the output from the Game Predictor, plus my own intuition, I have correctly picked 11 out of the last 12 games (missing only on Syracuse-Oklahoma). And that’s straight up, I don’t know what the record is against the spread, but it’s probably 9 or 10 out of 12. (I don’t gamble, so I don’t pay attention to how the spread picks do.)
Either way, I have become significantly more accurate forecasting games with some actual data as opposed to just going on gut feeling and my limited experience watching all of these teams play.
With all that said, let’s see how these two teams stack up with respect to the same five statistical categories I have used to predict every game thus far:
- Offensive Efficiency: UConn – 1.096 | Michigan State – 1.058
- Defensive Efficiency: UConn – 0.891 | Michigan State – 0.925
- Assist/TO Ratio: UConn – 1.268 | Michigan State – 1.181
- Free Throw %: UConn – 0.679 | Michigan State – 0.698
- Defensive Field Goal %: UConn – 0.376 | Michigan State – 0.414
UConn holds advantages in four of the five statistical categories, although not significant advantages. Still, I expect a pretty strong pick by Game Predictor in the direction of UConn because of how the stats came out and by virtue of their seeding of their strength of schedule. Let’s see:
- Odds to Win Game: UConn – 60.0% | Michigan State – 40.0%
- Most Likely Final Score: UConn – 72.3 | Michigan State – 69.4
- Odds to Cover Spread (MSU +4): UConn – 53.6% | Michigan State – 46.4%
- Confidence Level: 3 Stars
Now, before I get into my thoughts on this game, I want to say a few very important things to all of the Spartans fans out there:
- The odds of Michigan State winning the Louisville game, according to Game Predictor, were 83.1% – 16.9%, with a confidence level of 4 stars. We know how that turned out.
- In my original bracket (which currently sits at 96.9% in the ESPN Bracket Challenge!) I picked UConn to beat Michigan State and eventually win it all over North Carolina.
- Bracket be damned, I will be rooting like crazy for Michigan State to win on Saturday.
However — and it pains me to say this — I do not have the same gut feeling about Michigan State beating UConn as I did about the Spartans defying the odds to beat Louisville.
Seeing as how this is a Midwest sports blog, and the Spartans have become my adopted team during this year’s tournament, let’s take a look at this game from an MSU perspective. Three reasons why they will win, and three reasons why they won’t.
Three Reasons Why Michigan State Will Beat Connecticut
Goran Suton, as he was against Kansas and Louisville, will be the key for Michigan State. In both of my previous Michigan State previews I’ve discussed the importance of Raymar Morgan, but the reality has been that Goran Suton has been the perfect Robin to Kalin Lucas’ Batman. Suton scored 19 points and had 10 boards against Louisville after going for 20-9 against Kansas. The Spartans need similar production from him on Saturday, and there is no reason to believe he can’t provide it.
Here is what else he needs to do: draw Hasheem Thabeet away from the basket at times, but also get the ball in the post and be savvy enough to draw fouls on the UConn big man. Connecticut only lost three games this year, two of them to Pitt and one to Georgetown. In one of the Pitt losses by UConn, Thabeet only played 23 minutes before fouling out with 5 points, 2 blocks and 4 rebounds. Against Georgetown, Thabeet played 34 minutes but only scored 4 points and had 7 rebounds to go along with 7 blocks. If Michigan State can get Thabeet in foul trouble and/or force him to struggle on the offensive end, it will greatly improve their chances. Goran Suton has to play a key role in any Thabeet neutralization strategy, and he certainly appears up to the task right now.
2 — Michigan State will be playing before a home-court crowd in Detroit
East Lansing is only a 90 minute from drive Detroit, and obviously there are lots of Spartan fans in the city already. Not since Duke played in the Final Four in Charlotte (eventually losing the title game to Arkansas) has a team enjoyed this kind of Final Four home court advantage. And it’s the best of both worlds for the Spartans: they were great away from home this year, but now get to play away from home in an environment that will still be hostile for their opponent. As an underdog, the home crowd can help to give the Spartans momentum. If Michigan State can keep the game close, the crowd will be their best friend.
I realize that Kalin Lucas was named Big Ten Player of the Year, but I still do not think he gets the recognition he deserves. I’m a Big Ten fan, and I did not truly come to appreciate Lucas until this tourney run. All he has done in the last two games is outduel Kansas’ scintillating point guard Sherron Collins, and then completely control the pace and tempo of the Louisville game against physical guys that were bigger than him. Lucas is a great ball-handler, an excellent passer, and an outstanding shooter. He is great spotting up or off the drive looking to score or to dish. He is slight of frame, and will be going up against a tremendously large and physical defense in UConn, but his quickness can help him overcome this disadvantage. If he can get into the lane, draw Hasheem Thabeet, and find open cutters or spot-up shooters, Michigan State can get open looks. If the Spartans knock them down, they will stay right with the Huskies.
3a — Depending on if there are any more revelations in the UConn recruiting controversy, the Huskies could be distracted
I don’t think this will be an issue, and it won’t e if nothing new develops with this story. I think Jim Calhoun is perfectly adept at dealing with the inevitable questions he will get about this story, and UConn did not seem the least bit distracted by it in disposing of Purdue and Missouri. I throw this out only as a caveat, since I am making this prediction on Monday. There are plenty of 24-hour news cycles between now and Saturday for the dust to be kicked up and distractions to take hold; but in the end, I don’t think the potential recruiting scandal at UConn will influence this game one way or the other.
Three Reasons Why Connecticut will beat Michigan State
1 — Hasheem Thabeet is a presence unlike any Michigan State has dealt with this year.
Let’s be honest: Hasheem Thabeet is unlike any presence any opposing team has dealt with this year in college basketball. 13.5 points, 10.9 rebounds, and 4.3 blocks per game are the numbers, but Thabeet obviously affects a basketball game in multiple ways. If he can stay out of foul trouble, he will turn Michigan State into a jump shooting team, while offering UConn the ability to score down low on the other end.
Michigan State will undoubtedly try to draw Thabeet away from the basket by putting Suton out high like they did against Louisville. When this happens, I would not be surprised to see the Huskies let someone like Jeff Adrien or Stanley Robinson match up against him. Adrien is 6’7 with a big body and Robinson is 6’9 with a long wingspan. They can take turns bodying Suton up and making it hard for him to shoot his jumper, while simultaneously allowing Thabeet to roam the paint and take away the drive.
Either way, one of UConn’s great strengths is their ability to match up defensively with anyone they play. Tom Izzo will have to be ready to adjust and Kalin Lucas will need to penetrate into the teeth of the defense to create havoc.
2 — AJ Price is every bit as good as Kalin Lucas
Price is one of my favorite players in the country, and another guy that I think is underappreciated. he averages 14.7 points and 4.8 assists per game and is the Huskies’ most consistent shooter from three-point range. You need excellent guard play to win in the Final Four, especially against a team with a player as good as Kalin Lucas, and AJ Price gives UConn that dimension. And as Kemba Walker showed against Missouri, he can step in and provide clutch plays as well.
I like Price’s confidence and his calm demeanor and he will not get rattled even if Ford Field sounds like the Breslin Center. He has gone toe-to-toe with the best point guards in the Big East, playing in some of the most hostile environments, and has proven that he is one of the best in the country.
3 — Michigan State is a better free throw shooting team, but UConn gets to the line more often
As you can see above, the Spartans hold a 69.8% to 67.9% advantage over UConn in free throw shooting. However, for the season, Connecticut made 641 free throws out of 943 attempts, while Michigan State made 577 free throws on 828 attempts. The Huskies are big and physical at every position and the Spartans have to be careful not to foul too often. As we saw during the Elite 8 (especially in the Louisville-MSU and Pitt-Villanova games) the refs are calling things tight in the tournament. Against Louisville, Michigan State was whistled for 22 fouls and the Cardinals shot 18 free throws to the Spartans’ 7. Yet, Louisville only shot 55.6% from the line.
I don’t think the Spartans will be so fortunate if there is nearly a 2:1 ratio in free throw attempts and the ratio favors UConn.
The Huskies hit 26-32 from the line against Missouri, and 19-30 from the line against Purdue. In both games they dominated in free throws made and attempted, and the disparity in free throws made was larger than the final margin of victory. This is a huge part of the winning formula for UConn and the Spartans must be mindful of limiting the Huskies’ free attempts at the line.
With the way the tournament is being called this year, and UConn’s size and style of play, I think this could ultimately be the Spartans undoing.
As I said above, I picked UConn to win it all before the tournament started, but I have thrown my full fan support behind Michigan State. I love Tom Izzo, I love the way Kalin Lucas, Travis Walton, and Goran Suton are playing, and I love the fact that the city of Detroit gets to cheer on the home state team as we culminate another thrilling NCAA Tournament.
I just don’t think Michigan State will get by UConn.
I think they will keep it close and beat the 4-point spread, and I certainly think that they can win — in fact, I will never again be surprised by a Tom Izzo team winning a game it is not “supposed” to win in the tournament. And while I think that the Spartans’ chances are better than 40% to win, as predicted by Game Predictor, I think the chances are only about 46-47%. So if you ask me who I think will win, I have to answer UConn.
I hope I’m wrong, and I’ll be cheering hard that I am. But I do think that the most fitting way for this season to end is with an all Big East championship game. I don’t know yet whether or not I am predicting Villanova to upset North Carolina, but I am predicting Connecticut to hold up their end of the bargain.
What do you think?
Now that I’ve given you my keys to the UConn-MSU game, and my prediction, feel free to use the comment section for yours. I only chose three on each side, but there are plenty of other important storylines and matchups that will help determine this game. Spartan fans, your job is to please convince me why I’m wrong and give me more hope heading into Saturday.