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Michigan State vs. North Carolina Preview

The Spartans will play one of two Tar Heel teams tonight: the one that beat Louisville, or the one that lost to Belmont and UAB. Your guess is as good as mine.

The question is not if "DADGUM" is going through Roy's head, but how many "DADGUMS" are going through Roy's head.
The question is not if "DADGUM" is going through Roy's head, but how many "DADGUMS" are going through Roy's head.
Kelly Lambert-USA TODAY Sports

at 9:00 PM
TV: ESPN (Link to WatchESPN page)

It was summertime, and the livin' was easy. P.J. Hairston was in a rental car, a member of a preseason top ten team. Everyone in North Carolina agreed that he was well qualified to represent the UNC.

But wait! Hairston was pulled over three times in the offseason, which led to the discovery that the rental car he was driving for two of those stops was rented by a felon. Hairston, previously suspended indefinitely by Roy Williams after the 6'5" shooting guard was pulled over for the third time, is now in limbo while the NCAA decides whether to make an example of him, one that should end all impropriety in collegiate athletics from here to eternity. Without Hairston, The Tar Heels' leading perimeter threat last season, UNC started the season ranked #12 in the AP poll and stuttered their way through victories against Oakland and Holy Cross before being upset at home by Belmont.

But wait! The Tar Heels' then beat Richmond after falling behind early, then played Louisville for the Hall of Fame Tip-Off Tournament title. Buoyed by 54% shooting from two-point range and 32 points from sophomore point guard Marcus Paige, North Carolina upset the then-number-three Cardinals 93-84. It looked like UNC had its game plan -- use efficient two-point scoring combined with Paige's perimeter threat and offensive rebounding (38.7 OR% against Louisville) to win.

BUT WAIT! After the upset, UNC played UAB in Birmingham last Sunday. In eight words: the basketball, it did not go so well. The Tar Heels shot 1 for 12 from three and allowed the Blazers to collect 44.7% of their offensive misses. Even though UAB only shot 32% from two and 25% from three, they also went to the foul line 17 more times than UNC (28 to the Tar Heels' 11), and sank 22 free throws. The free throw discrepancy proved fatal for North Carolina, and they lost 63-59.

Here's what we know for sure for North Carolina: their offense relies on the two-pointer; the Tar Heels get 64.3% of their points from twos, sixth most in Division One. While they average about a free throw for every two field goals they attempt, UNC is not good at all at free throw shooting. Their 60.5% on foul shots puts them firmly in the 330s (332 to be exact) in D1. They turn the ball over an average amount (17.8% of all possessions, 154th in D1), and they're merely decent on the offensive boards, collecting 34.7% of their misses (92nd in D1).

So where can UNC dictate the game? The answer is defense inside the arc. Tar Heel opponents only make 41.0% of their two pointers (15th in D1). UNC has the ability to bring in long defenders off the bench: Brice Johnson and Isaiah Hicks are 6'8"-6'9", 210-220 lbs., while Kennedy Meeks is a 6'9", 290 lb. bruiser. There's no lack of depth for Carolina's bigs.

What UNC wants to do is obvious -- attack inside, kick it out to Paige every once in a while for a three to create the semblance of perimeter shooting. On defense, gum up the interior and make the opponent take a poor shot from distance. Here's how MSU can attack the Tar Heels:

  • Have Harris or Appling lock down Marcus Paige. Simple thing is simple -- Paige is the only UNC player who can knock down threes with any regularity (if J.P. Tokoto, 16% in his career from three, beats MSU by going 5-5 from behind the arc, so be it). Neutralize him with Appling and good help defense (the latter was not on display constantly versus Mount St. Mary's) it'll be easier to pack the paint.
  • Keep Dawson and Payne out of foul trouble. Four of Carolina's players (James McAdoo, Tokoto, Meeks, and Johnson) draw more than five fouls per 40 minutes of game time, with Paige drawing 4.7 fouls per 40 minutes. I'm confident that Dawson and Payne can handle UNC's athletic big men, sort of confident that Costello can, and not really confident of Gauna's ability in that regard.
  • Continue the Spartans' conversion to a *gasp* PERIMETER-ORIENTED TEAM. UNC's two losses were caused by one team's hot three-point shooting (Belmont shot over 40% from behind the arc) and another team's attack of their missed shots (as previously mentioned, UAB recovered 44.7% of their misses). You know we're living behind the looking glass when the former seems much more likely than the latter for Michigan State, but this is the reality we're living in as Spartan fans at this point. When you're riding the dragon, you might as well stay aboard and see if Xanadu's the next stop.

I think this game is going to be different than a lot of other games we've seen so far this year in that the opponent won't start out red hot from three. What I think will happen, however, is UNC will fall behind at the start, then recover when Dawson and Payne need a rest and/or fall into foul trouble. The Tar Heels will get their free throws, and Zeus willing, will miss them. I think the Tar Heels are inexperienced (especially without Hairston), and even though the Spartans have had sub-par performances against inferior opponents at times, MSU's realized what they have to do to pull out the victory in the end, with indifference to the ugliness of the means to victory. Tonight may well be a slog, but int the end MSU makes enough free throws and a three or two to pull it out.