NCAA Championship Game: Michigan State-North Carolina Preview, Analysis, and Prediction

Note: This post is from 2009. To view our 2010 March Madness coverage, use the following links:

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This post will analyze the Michigan State-North Carolina NCAA Championship 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.

From the Maui Invitational to March Madness, it all comes down to Championship Monday. One of the participants in this year’s Mens NCAA Championship Game was excepted: North Carolina. The other, Michigan State, surprised a lot of people (but not me) by surpassing Louisville to even make it to Detroit for the Final Four. They then surprised even more people (including me) by knocking off UConn Saturday night.

Now, the Spartans and head coach Tom Izzo have an opportunity to bring even more joy to the city of Detroit by capturing the 2009 NCAA Championship. All that stands in their way is the most talented team in America and the team that has been more dominant than any other during the NCAA Tournament. Monday night’s game will be, undoubtedly, the most challenging yet for Izzo, Kalin Lucas, and the mighty Spartans.

But so was Saturday night’s game against UConn, and Michigan State was able to impose their will in an 82-73 victory.

Michigan State-North Carolina Preview, Prediction, Spread, TimeAnd so was last weekend’s game against Louisville, but the Spartans took the Cardinals behind the woodshed in the second half and made all fans of Big Ten basketball proud in a 64-52 victory.

The question now is: can these magic Spartans pull another unexpected rabbit out of their hat with an upset over North Carolina?

I’m about to put my 12-2 record predicting all of the games since the Sweet 16 on the line. I went against Michigan State in their Final Four matchup with UConn. It will take a lot for me to pick against them again.

Unfortunately for all of the Big Ten and Spartan supporters who will be cheering on the guys in green Monday night, North Carolina has proven there are a lot of reasons to like their chances. Will it be enough to overcome the decidedly home court-like advantage that Michigan State will enjoy on Monday night? That’s what we’re here to find out. (Or, at least, predict.)


First, a few of the specifics for the 2009 NCAA Mens Basketball Championship game between Michigan State and North Carolina:

Michigan State v North Carolina National Championship Game Preview and Prediction

(FYI…the spread and over-under info are the initial lines from BetUs.com from Saturday night. You may want to check there for the most up-to-date info.)

And now, let’s head over to Game Predictor and see how Michigan State and North Carolina match up with respect to the same five statistical categories we have used to analyze every game thus far since the Sweet 16:

  • Offensive Efficiency: North Carolina – 1.155 | Michigan State – 1.058
  • Defensive Efficiency: North Carolina – 0.932 | Michigan State – 0.925
  • Assist/TO Ratio: North Carolina – 1.416 | Michigan State – 1.181
  • Free Throw %: North Carolina – 0.765 | Michigan State – 0.698
  • Defensive Field Goal %: North Carolina – 0.414 | Michigan State – 0.414

Michigan State-North Carolina Preview, Prediction, Time, Spread

So the Tar Heels win three out of the five categories, with the teams being identical in terms of the field goal percentage they give up. For anyone who has been following these predictions, we know that Game Predictor will choose the Tar Heels. They are the higher seed and have the advantage in the stat categories. The question is, how strong will the prediction be? Let’s find out:

  • Odds to Win Game: North Carolina – 59.2% | Michigan State – 40.8%
  • Most Likely Final Score: North Carolina – 74.7 | Michigan State – 71.8
  • Odds to Cover Spread: (I did this before the spread had been posted. Use the link above to go to Game Predictor and analyze it on your own, using your own stats, if you really want to know. I don’t bet on sports, so I don’t really care that much.)
  • Confidence Level: 2 Stars

North Carolina-Michigan State Preview, Prediction, Time, Spread

Now that we know how Game Predictor sees the game, with no real surprises, it’s time for a little analysis and prediction.

Before we get into the nitty-gritty, let’s discuss one thing that does not matter heading into Monday night’s MSU-UNC game:

Back in December, North Carolina beat Michigan State 98-63 at Ford Field in Detroit

A lot of people are going to point to the Michigan State-North Carolina game from earlier this season as a reason for why North Carolina can and should beat Michigan State on Monday. Why? Same teams + same season + same venue (should) = same result…right?

Not so fast, and here are the reasons:

  • In December, the announced attendance was 25,267 out of the 70,000 person capacity at Ford Field. Monday night, there will be 70,000 strong at the game and the vast majority will be partial to the Spartans. Michigan State may not be in East Lansing, but it will be as close to a home game as possible for a game like this in terms of fan support.
  • Goran Suton did not play in the first meeting. He was out with a sprained knee. Suton did not have a good game against UConn Saturday, but he was huge in the Spartans’ wins over Kansas and Louisville.
  • Michigan State came into the game having only two days rest after playing three games in four nights at the Old Spice Classic in Lake Buena Vista, Florida. After the game, Tom Izzo said, “The blame goes on me for the scheduling. We were dead.” The Tar Heels had finished up their championship run in the Maui Invitational on November 26th and then played a tune-up game against UNC-Asheville that resulted in a relaxing 116-48 victory. Ty Lawson smartly said during the press conference after the Villanova game that the previous game would have no bearing on Monday night.
  • Kalin Lucas scored six points on 2-10 shooting. Have you seen him play in the tournament? Do you think he’ll do that again? I don’t think so.

Okay, now that we have that out of the way, let’s take a look at where each team has an advantage with three reasons why each team will win.

Three Reasons Why North Carolina Will Beat Michigan State

1 – Plain and simple, North Carolina at its best is better than Michigan State at its best.

Can anyone truly, honestly dispute this?

If both of these teams play their absolute best basketball of the season, North Carolina will win. But luckily for the Spartans, the game is not played in such a vacuum. Many people thought Michigan State and Kansas were an even match, and the Spartans came out on top. Most people gave Louisville and UConn the advantage over Michigan State, but the Spartans still came out on top.

Nearly everyone, again, will give North Carolina the advantage over Michigan State — so can the Spartans come out on top?

Well, they can…but they have to force the Tar Heels to play below their ability. And while this is certainly possible in a one game scenario, you would lose more money that you’d win betting against the team with superior ability.Ty Lawson - UNC-MSU preview, prediction, spread pick, game time

An old adage of winning in the NCAA Tournament is that usually the teams with the most NBA-level talent end up going the furthest. North Carolina certainly has more players projected to make an impact at the next level than Michigan State. Again, this does not necessarily mean that North Carolina will win, but their chances of doing so are certainly better.

2 – Ty Lawson is the best player on the floor.

I realize that this somewhat piggybacks on the last one, but it’s an important distinction. Having a lot of talent is great, but if that talent does not function together as a unit, it does not matter. The reason why Michigan State has beaten Louisville and UConn is that Kalin Lucas has been an oustanding floor general and has guided the talent on the floor with him to play better team basketball than its opponents.

Ty Lawson is doing the exact same thing, and now we know why everyone was so concerned about his toe injury. This guy is magnificent.

And as good as Kalin Lucas is, Ty Lawson is still a notch above. I love Kalin, but he is not as consistent a shooter nor quite as effective a playmaker in the open court as Lawson. A quick comparison:

  • Points per game: Ty Lawson – 16.3 | Kalin Lucas – 14.6
  • Assists per game: Ty Lawson – 6.5 | Kalin Lucas – 4.6
  • Field Goal %: Ty Lawson – .542 | Kalin Lucas – .394
  • Free Throw %: Ty Lawson – .815 | Kalin Lucas – .814
  • Free Throw Attempts per game: Ty Lawson – 5.2 | Kalin Lucas – 5.52
  • 3 Point %: Ty Lawson – .485 | Kalin Lucas – .388

Look, I love Kalin Lucas. (In fact, I’ve now said that I love him in two consecutive paragraphs, but it’s just a basketball crush and nothing more, I promise.) And you can chalk up Lawson’s advantage in points and assists to the style of play North Carolina employs. Surprisingly, the more slight-of-frame Lucas actually get to the foul line more than Lawson, which proves the kid’s toughness and ability to get into the teeth of the defense. (As well as the fact that Michigan State has played in a few more close games.)

However, those shooting percentages are difficult to ignore. In a one game scenario, either of these guys could be hot or cold. The question is, who is more likely to be hot and who is more likely to be cold? The stats say Ty Lawson is more likely to a great shooting night.

I think the frontcourts for these two teams are very similar (assuming either Raymar Morgan or Goran Suton shows up), and that guard production will likely decide the outcome; if this is true, then it’s hard to choose against the Tar Heels and Lawson.

3 – The Tar Heels have been on a mission since this time last year.

After North Carolina got royally spanked by Kansas in the Final Four last year, the Tar Heels’ terrific trio of Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington, and Tyler Hansbrough all decided to come back for another run. Without question, they had one primary goal in mind: win the national title.

Now, I realize that every top echelon team (Michigan State included) enters a season hoping to win a national title. But the Tar Heels entered thNorth Carolina v Michigan State preview, prediction, spread picke season expecting to win a national title, and knowing they had the talent to do it. Plus, they had the extra motivation of erasing last year’s Final Four embarrassment. They did that tonight by beating Villanova, and now they have one more step left to complete their season-long journey.

I think this is a big difference between these two teams.

North Carolina started the season as the #1 team in America in both polls, with no other team receiving a first place vote. Then they went out and dominated the majority of their competition and are peaking at just the right time. Michigan State started out at #6 and #7 in the two polls, had an up and down season, but they too are peaking at the right time. But I get a small sense to happy-to-be-here from Michigan State. I think their goal was to make it to Detroit entering the season. North Carolina’s goal was to win it in Detroit.

You will see below that I think the home court advantage is big for Michigan State, but I also think the confidence, belief, and season-long championship tunnel-vision of North Carolina is a big advantage for the Tar Heels. If North Carolina was going to lay an egg, I think they would have done it tonight in the Final Four; but they stared down the evil memory of last year and overcame it emphatically. Now freed from that pressure, there is only one more sprint to the only finish line they were targeting all season: the National Championship.

A supremely talented team that is on a mission, and peaking as they approach their mission’s achievement, is extremely dangerous. North Carolina heading into Monday night is extremely dangerous.

Three Reasons Why Michigan State Will Beat North Carolina

1 – Michigan State can work the offensive glass and control teams in transition

Watch North Carolina play and you are likely to wear our your neck going back and forth trying to keep up with the action. The Tar Heels push the ball and push the ball and push the ball some more. If you are going to beat North Carolina, you absolutely have to be able to play strong transition defense. Surprisingly though, you do not have to dominate the Tar Heels on the glass to win.

Case in point, in their four losses this year:

And earlier tonight, Villanova outrebounded North Carolina 50-46, but still lost 83-69. So clearly, rebounding by itself is not a key to beating North Carolina. But here is what is a key: getting solid offensive rebounding from your frontcourt players, while your backcourt guys are heading back to slow down the North Carolina transition. A deeper look at the Carolina losses this year:

  • Maryland had 12 offensive rebounds, seven of which came from frontcourt players
  • Wake Forest had 8 offensive rebounds, all of which came from frontcourt players
  • Boston College had 14 offensive rebounds, 10 of which came from frontcourt players
  • Florida State had 12 offensive rebounds, 10 of which came from frontcourt players

And tonight, Villanova had 19 offensive rebounds, but 10 of them came from backcourt players Dwayne Anderson, Scottie Reynolds, Reggie Redding, and Corey Fisher. With those guys battling inside for offensive rebounds, North Carolina was able to get into transition and get open looks. The result was 83 points and 11-22NCAA Championship Game preview, prediction, spread pick, time, analysis shooting from downtown.

Look at the Oklahoma-UNC game. The Sooners tied the Tar Heels on the glass 27-27 overall and beat them 10-6 on the offensive end, with all of those offensive rebounds coming from frontcourt guys. The Sooners held the Tar Heels to 72 points, which is 11 less than the Heels scored in any other tournament game and 17 fewer than their season average. Unfortunately for Oklahoma, they simply could not hit a shot themselves (2-19 from downtown) and only scored 60.

If Michigan State shoots 2-19 from downtown, obviously they have no chance. They had a poor shooting night tonight and still went 6-19 from deep. But if they can follow Oklahoma’s blueprint for slowing down UNC’s pace, the Spartans can win a game played in the 70s.

Can they follow that blueprint?

Well, just look at tonight — because they did. Against a much bigger UConn team, the Spartans were outrebounded only 41-40 and won on the offensive side 16-15. Most importantly, neither Kalin Lucas nor Travis Walton contributed even one rebound to the excellent effort on the offensive glass. What they did do is get back and slow down AJ Price and the Huskies’ running game. UConn only shot 42.4% overall and 2-6 from downtown, both stats proving that they did not get many easy shots, most of which typically come out of transition.

2 – To beat North Carolina you must have guards who can score; Michigan State does

Let’s take a look at North Carolina’s three losses again:

  • G Greivis Vasquez scored 35 points on 13-24 shooting and 5-10 from downtown in the Maryland loss
  • Gs Tyrese Rice and Rakim Sanders combined for 47 points on 16-28 shooting and 6-13 from downtown in the Boston College loss
  • G Jeff Teague scored 34 points on 9-17 shooting and 3-4 from downtown in the Wake Forest loss
  • G Toney Douglas scored 27 points on 10-18 shooting and 3-8 from deep in the Florida State loss in the ACC Tournament.

I actually thought that this was a reason why Villanova would have a chance against North Carolina. And while Scottie Reynolds, Reggie Redding, and Corey Fisher combined for 45 points, they were a combined 16-46 from the field. Villanova’s shot selection on Saturday night was, in a word, atrocious.NCAA Championship Game preview, prediction, spread pick, analysis

Michigan State is a much more disciplined team offensively, and should use better shot judgment and be more patient to get open looks. And while I do not think you will see any of their players individually match the output that Vasquez, Rice, Sanders, Teague, and Douglas had in leading their teams to victory, Michigan State does have five players capable of scoring in double-digits and hitting outside shots on a nightly basis: Kalin Lucas, Chris Allen, Durrell Summers, Travis Walton, and Korie Lucious.

Kalin Lucas is the most consistent of the bunch, and he will have to score points on Monday night. He has scored at least 10 in the Spartans’ last four tournament games, including 21 Saturday against UConn. I think Lucas needs to score in the 15-20 range for the Spartans to win, but most importantly they must get balance from these five guys.

The biggest question mark about North Carolina throughout the season was their defense, but they have proven over the last couple of games that they can step it up and play solid D. By no means is it a foregone conclusion that Michigan State’s guards can score enough points to keep up with the Tar Heels, but they do have the talent to do it, which is why they have a chance Monday night.

Without significant point production from the backcourt, you simply do not beat North Carolina; the Spartan guards need to bring it Monday night, and they are capable.

3 – The home court advantage and close game experience

I think these are a big deal. A very big deal.

North Carolina is a team with incredible “spurtability” that likes to lay the hammer down on opponents — a lot like they did against the Spartans early in the year, and a lot like they did against Villanova Saturday. North Carolina jumped out on the Wildcats early, and ‘Nova was never able to get back into it. It looked to me like Villanova was playing as if everything was going against them, and the self-fulfilling prophecy proved true.

The Tar Heels average point differential on the season is 17.8 points (89.8-72.0), so they are used to imposing their will and putting teams away. There is no question in my mind that North Carolina will make some runs on Monday night. They are too good and too talented not to. But with Michigan State having a raucous Detroit crowd willing them on at every opportunity, the Tar Heels will be hard pressed to “knock out” the Spartans.

For a team that gets lots of easy victories, being in a knock-down, drag-out fight can sometimes be challenging. Certainly, North Carolina has won close games this year (79-76 over Virginia Tech, 69-65 over Miami, for example), but they have only played 10 games decided by 10 points or less, going 6-4 in these contests. Michigan State, on the other hand, has been grinding out games all season long. The Spartans average point differential is 9.0 (72.0-63.0) and they are 12-2 in games decided by 10 points or less.

The point differential is obviously a double-edged sword. North Carolina’s shows its potential for dominance, which is why they are about a touchdown favorite on Monday night, and I don’t think anyone would walk away from Monday night completely shocked if North Carolina puts on a dominating performance; we’ve just seen it too often from them in the tournament. However, if Michigan State can battle and keep it close, I like the Spartans’ chances. They are used to playing in closer games and have a great record when it comes to pulling them out.

And that’s where the crowd comes in.

I saw first hand how much a crowd can will a team to stay in a game when the Spartans played in Bloomington this year. Michigan State is one of the finalists for the NCAA title, and Indiana fielded perhaps NCAA Championship Game preview, prediction, spread pick, analysis, game timethe worst team in school history. Yet, somehow, the Hoosiers were able to make it only a 5-point game, losing 64-59, with Indiana outscoring the Spartans 32-30 in the second half. With such a great disparity in talent, the Hoosiers used grit, determination, will, and the energy of the home crowd to fight until the end.

There is no question that while North Carolina is the more talented and explosive team, that Michigan State is far closer to the Tar Heels than Indiana was to Michigan State. A little more talent and Indiana might have pulled off the upset. For Michigan State, we have seen their grit, determination, and will — and we know how crazy the Ford Field crowd will be for them Monday night. I think all of those factors will help the Spartans keep it close; and if they do, as the stats prove, I think the Spartans have an advantage in a close game.

Okay, so now that we’ve run down three reasons why each team will win, it’s time to hop onto one side of the fence and choose which of these two teams will actually be the victor, and the 2009 NCAA Mens Basketball Champion, on Monday night. However, it’s not quite as easy as just picking one or the other.

My gut says that Tom Izzo’s game-planning brilliance, the Spartans’ grit, Kalin Lucas’ leadership, and the support of the Detroit crowd will keep this game close. And in a close game I like the Spartans, as I just mentioned. However, my head says that North Carolina has such a fierce combination of talent and focus that they are simply unbeatable by any team in college basketball right now. Yet, my heart says Michigan State because of my affinity for their coach and my desire to see the Big Ten gain back some of the prestige that has been lost in recent seasons.

It would be easy to go with my head on this one and make the “safe” pick. However, I’m going with the Spartans, and unlike during the games on Saturday night (when I picked UConn and UNC to win) I can actually cheer with my pick on Monday.Michigan State-North Carolina preview, prediction, analysis, spread pick, time

But in the end, I’m not just picking the Spartans because I want to. I saved a very important “why they will win” reason for the end, and here it is:

I trust Tom Izzo more in big games than I trust Roy Williams.

Both are great coaches — Hall of Famers, in fact — and both have won championships before. And while both coaches have had successes and failures in big spots, there is just something visceral about Tom Izzo’s fiery, underdog, energetic style that I buy into more than Roy Williams’ style. Unlike the analysis above, I don’t have lots of stats to back my support for Izzo up, and you are well within your right to say I am biased on this one. But I picked against Izzo in the Michigan State-Connecticut game, and I’m not about to do it again on Monday.

Plus, I think an overzealous North Carolina fan may have unwittingly jinxed the Tar Heels.

I just went to the Wikipedia pages for both Tom Izzo and Roy Williams to examine their career records for something quantitative to back up by claim of trusting Izzo more in big games.

Here is a screen shot of what the section on Izzo’s career coaching record looked like:

Michigan State-UNC Preview, Spread Pick, Prediction, Game Time

And here is a screen shot of what the section on Williams’ career coaching record looked like:

MSU-UNC Preview, Prediction, Spread Pick

Notice anything funny about the Roy Williams page? Someone already edited it to say “National Championship” for this season. (If you go to the page now, it very well could be edited, but that’s why I did the screen capture. Readers of this site know that I like to have fun with Photoshop from time to time, but I promise you that this is exactly how the pages looked.)

Hmm…it’s 1:NCAA Championship game preview, prediction, spread pick, analysis20 am Central Time on Sunday morning as I write this. Looks like somebody jumped the gun bit declaring a winner. And while it’s not the same as the New England Patriots copyrighting 19-0 before the Super Bowl, it’s still jinx-worthy in my book.

Add up North Carolina’s three reasons and the Game Predictor outcome, and then add up Michigan State’s three reasons plus Izzo over Williams, and the two teams are knotted at 4-4. Throw in the jinx and the tie is broken.

Prediction: Michigan State completes a storybook run to the National Championship by winning a close, hard-fought game on Monday night against the backdrop of a city that loves its Spartans, and certainly deserves some joy in the midst of its terrible economic woes.

I can’t wait for this one. It’s going to be one hell of a championship game.

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About the Author

Jerod Morris

I love words. I write for Copyblogger and founded MSF, The Assembly Call, & Primility. I practice yoga, eat well, & strive for balance. I love life. Namaste. Say hi on Twitter, Facebook, & G+.