There's been a lot of ugliness in college sports the past week. I've shied away from discussing it here, in part because this is a Michigan State site and I like to keep the focus on MSU, and in part because other blogs are doing a much better job documenting the tragedy that occurred, especially Black Shoe Diaries. For what they've been going through as fans their writing has been of the highest quality.
However, there's still much more good than bad in college athletics, and we're going to witness one such event tonight. For the first time ever, an NCAA basketball game is being played on an aircraft carrier. This is the part where I write something about honoring the military, but Matt Ufford of KSK and The Classical wrote something much more better and true than I ever could, and it's here (NSFW language). It's a must read, so go ahead and click on that link; this preview will still be here when you get back.
The following is a preview I wrote for a publication that never got to print.
Coach: Roy Williams (225-62 at UNC, 643-163 overall)
Last Season Overall: 29-8
Last Season In Conference (ACC): 14-2 (1st)
The 2011 North Carolina Tar Heels were supposed to be rebuilding after an Elite Eight loss to Kentucky last season. Then the unthinkable happened - Tyler Zeller, Harrison Barnes, and John Henson all decided to stay in school, instantly making UNC one of the, if not the favorite to win the 2012 NCAA title. It's not like they suffered a lot of attrition either. The only player to leave of consequence was guard Larry Drew II, who left the team unexpectedly in February and is now enrolled at UCLA.
Last year's version of the Tar Heels bloomed late. They suffered losses to Minnesota, Vanderbilt, Illinois, and Texas in the nonconference schedule, and a loss to Georgia Tech early in the ACC. Soon after the loss, head coach Roy Williams made the decision to start Kendall Marshall at point guard over Larry Drew II, and UNC lost three games the rest of the way. Marshall was one of the best point guards in the nation; he had assists on more than 40% of his team's baskets while he was on the court, one of the ten best such rates in the nation last season.
The strength of this team is on the frontcourt though. Center Zeller and forwards Barnes and Henson were the top three scorers on this team last season. Zeller is the most efficient player on the team, making 54.7% of his shots last season (all twos), and more than 75% of his free throws. Henson is the best rebounder. He rebounded 25.4% of all opponents' misses last season, but is a poor foul shooter at 47.9%. Barnes is the most athletic, but played more like a guard at times for whatever reason. His 195 threes taken last year where most on the team, and he wasn't the most efficient shooter from there at 34.4%.
Not surprisingly, this team liked to inside last year, and should do the same this year. Less than 20% of their shots where threes last season, with only 18 other teams in Division one having a lower percentage. While not the best inside shooting team last year at 49.1%, they get their efficiency from their offensive rebounding. They rebounded 36.7% of their misses last season, 27th in the NCAA.
So how will MSU beat UNC? Force them outside. Only two Tar Heels made more than 35% of their threes last season, and only one of those players attempted more than two threes a game on average. Don't expect MSU to get fouls either - North Carolina opponents attempted one free throw for every four shots, second best in Division 1.
Hopefully Appling can stop Marshall from passing into the post, because once that's done the experienced, big Tar Heel frontcourt will most likely have a sizable advantage on players not named Draymond Green. If the Spartans can keep North Carolina's big men away from the hoop and off balance, they'll have a good chance to win this game. If not, it may be a long afternoon at sea.
FINAL THOUGHTS -- Not much has changed since I wrote about North Carolina this summer. If small forward P.J. Hairston is an accurate three-point shooter, worry much. I still think the key is stifling Marshall -- North Carolina's offense went from third to fifth gear once he became the starting point guard, and if Appling can stifle him, that'll go a long way towards limiting the Tar Heels' post players' effectiveness.
I wish I could be more confident in Michigan State, but young players in an Izzo system typically have a steep learning curve in regards to defense, and there will be a lot of relatively young players on the floor for Michigan State. It'll be a great experience, but like many times the Spartans have battled the Tar Heels, they'll not only have a talent advantage but an experience advantage as well. I expect a hard-fought game, but I also expect North Carolina to win decisively.
FINAL SCORE: NORTH CAROLINA 82, MICHIGAN STATE 70