Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Heels Stomp Spartans

Although the North Carolina Tar Heels were not the number one overall seed in this year's NCAA Tournament, their impressive run--culminating in an 89-72 Championship Game victory over Michigan State--provides in retrospect an air of inevitability about the final result; when people look back on this season in 10 or 20 years they will surely wonder why the Tar Heels were not a prohibitive pre-tournament favorite, because they simply dominated the event from start to finish, winning each of their games by at least 12 points and racking up the second largest aggregate point differential (121 points) in the NCAA Tournament since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985. The last team to roll to an NCAA Championship with six straight double digit wins was Duke in 2001.

CBS' locker room access with Michigan State provided some telling foreshadowing, because Spartans' Coach Tom Izzo's pregame speech essentially consisted of the message that North Carolina would make scoring runs throughout the game but that Michigan State had to try to limit those runs to six points instead of 10 or 12. I don't know about you, but I would not find that to be a particularly inspiring message, though I respect Izzo's candor. The reality is that Izzo is an exceptional coach but on this occasion he went into a gunfight with butter knives, which is an impossible task even for an NBA assassin like Kobe Bryant.

North Carolina beat Michigan State 98-63 early in the season and even though the Spartans have improved since then they clearly are not in the same class as the Tar Heels, which is saying something considering that the Spartans reached the title game by beating Louisville--the number one overall seed--and Connecticut, also a number one seed. Any momentum from those triumphs quickly receded into the history books almost immediately after the opening tip of the Championship Game--the Tar Heels led 17-7 after less than five minutes, pushed that margin as high as 24 and never let the Spartans get closer than 13 points the rest of the way. The Tar Heels led 55-34 at halftime, setting Championship Game records for points scored in a first half and biggest halftime lead.

Wayne Ellington earned Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors after scoring 19 points on 7-12 field goal shooting but Ty Lawson (21 points, six assists, four rebounds, eight steals) and Tyler Hansbrough (18 points, seven rebounds) also had excellent games; Lawson tied the Final Four single game record for steals with seven swipes in the first half alone and he added a second half steal to take sole possession of that mark. Goran Suton led Michigan State with 17 points and 11 rebounds. The physical Spartans won the battle of the boards 40-33, which is a trademark of Izzo's teams, but they turned the ball over 21 times (compared to just seven miscues by North Carolina) and even when they retained possession long enough to attempt a shot they connected just 40% of the time.

North Carolina's roster may contain as many as six future NBA players, though Michigan State's Travis Walton vastly overstated the case when he said, "You're looking at a team that could probably beat the worst team in the NBA"; even the 12th man on most NBA rosters was a star in college, so no team of young collegians--at least half of whom will not make it to the NBA--is going to beat an NBA team full of former college stars who have matured physically and mentally.

It is hard not to think about the NBA while watching college basketball, because the players who have the most upside are only staying in school for one year before jumping at the chance to sign for millions of guaranteed dollars; this process hurts the quality of both pro and college basketball but the NCAA is getting the worst of it. Players who enter the NBA before they are ready lower the standard of play a little bit but then they usually end up with reduced minutes until they mature, so their presence on the roster drives off some more competent veterans who do not have guaranteed contracts but does not drastically affect the quality of the game. On the other hand, the cream of the crop of college players do not stick around long enough to fully mature either as players or as well known faces who can be marketed to boost college basketball's TV ratings. For instance, I would much rather have seen Kevin Durant in the 2008 NCAA Tournament as opposed to watching him chase around NBA shooting guards as he received on the job training while playing out of position. Sure, Durant has blossomed in his second NBA season but it would have been better for college and pro hoops if he had gone through that maturation process as a collegian. It is obvious that we would be seeing better individual performances as well as deeper, more balanced teams if so many future stars did not look at going to college as nothing more than a necessary evil for one year.

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