UNC more than ready for rematch

DETROIT – They say the rematch will be different, that Michigan State-North Carolina II – this time for the national championship – will be far from the lopsided laugher we saw when the teams met in a nonconference game four months ago.

I’m inclined to agree.

Instead of 35 points, the Tar Heels may only win this one by 20.

That’s certainly not a knock against Michigan State, which advanced to Monday’s title game by defeating two No. 1 seeds and defending national champion Kansas. Tom Izzo’s Spartans are legit.

Still, as the final minutes ticked away in North Carolina’s 83-69 semifinal victory over Villanova on Saturday, it became obvious that the 2008-09 season will end the same way it began: with North Carolina in a class all by itself.

“When we’re clicking on all cylinders, it’s a sight to see,” guard Bobby Frasor said.

Michigan State discovered that firsthand back on Dec. 3, when North Carolina overwhelmed the Spartans 98-63 on this same Ford Field court. It was a tail-kicking like no other, and for the next 48 hours, everyone will remind us that it means absolutely nothing now.

“They’re a totally different team,” North Carolina forward Tyler Hansbrough said. “They’re playing a lot better than they were back then.”

Part of that is because Michigan State star Goran Suton missed the Dec. 3 contest with a knee injury. It’s also possible that the Spartans may have been a bit dead-legged considering their showdown with the Tar Heels was their fourth game in seven days.

North Carolina, though, is much improved, too. Hansbrough is back to full strength after battling early season injuries, and the Tar Heels are getting bigger contributions from reserves such as Ed Davis, Larry Drew and Tyler Zeller, who missed the first meeting with a broken wrist.

“We are a confident team,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said, “but we will not be overconfident going into that game. I’ve coached in games where we got killed [the first time] and turned around and beat them the second time.

“We have a tremendous respect for what Michigan State has done.”

As well they should.

Think about it: In the last week Izzo has knocked off college basketball’s hottest young coach (Kansas’ Bill Self) along with two active legends (Louisville’s Rick Pitino and Connecticut’s Jim Calhoun). And Izzo didn’t just beat Pitino and Calhoun. He smacked them.

Thing is, this isn’t about Michigan State. It’s about the Tar Heels – when they’re playing on an elite level – being in a different class than the rest of college basketball.

Look at Saturday’s box score. North Carolina didn’t even play well against Villanova yet still handled the Wildcats with ease. The Tar Heels shot just 40 percent from the field and were outrebounded. They got just five points from their bench and missed 15 free throws.

Still, they won by 14.

It could’ve – and probably should’ve – been a 25-point game.

Things may not get that out of control against Michigan State on Monday.

A Final Four record 72,456 fans were on hand for Saturday’s Michigan State-Connecticut game, and most of them were wearing Spartan green. Detroit has been hit as hard as anyone lately by the poor economy and layoffs. Izzo’s team has given the city something to feel good about, something to latch onto.

“I expect them to come out on a tear in the first half,” North Carolina forward Deon Thompson said. “They’re going to be so excited with all those people behind him. When you get a crowd behind you, the blood starts flowing and you get those tingly feelings.

“It’s going to be all green in there, but we can use that to our advantage.”

Indeed, North Carolina is the last team that’s going to be affected by a raucous road crowd. Ask the fans at Duke’s Cameron Indoor Stadium if the Tar Heels get rattled in hostile environments.

Four years ago, Roy Williams won his first national championship by defeating Illinois in St. Louis – just down the road from the Illini’s home turf.

“Everyone is going to be talking about it,” Frasor said. “But once that ball goes up in the air, it won’t be much of a factor.”

Nope. This one is going to come down to who has the best talent, the best team. Come Monday – as was the case in December – that won’t be tough to figure out.

Jason King is a college football and basketball writer for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jason a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Apr 5, 2009