UConn vs. MSU: The matchup
ANNOUNCERS: Jim Nantz play-by-play, Clark Kellogg analyst
It’s up front where UConn is truly special. Though his offense remains raw, Hasheem Thabeet is a game-changer on defense. He is a big-time shot blocker, and his size is an intimidating factor. His rebounding is excellent, too. He’s not going to wow anyone with his offensive skills – or his free-throw shooting – but he takes up a ton of space in the low post and is effective offensively around the basket. Jeff Adrien also averages a double-double and is another big-time physical presence. He can hit the occasional jumper, but he’s at his best around the basket, where he can use his bulk and strength to carve out space for himself. Stanley Robinson is a phenomenal athlete who could become a star once his offensive skills match his physical gifts. He can jump out of the gym, but most of his high flying comes on defense and on the glass. Gavin Edwards is a big body off the bench. He’s an OK rebounder and defender, but he has no offensive game.
UConn has an all-upperclassmen starting five, somewhat amazing in this day and age. Though depth is lacking, the starters are used to playing 32-plus minutes per game. The starting five arguably is as good as any in the nation, especially defensively, and the lack of depth hasn’t hurt the Huskies in the tournament.
Connecticut’s size and athleticism in the frontcourt creates a matchup nightmare for just about anybody, though Pitt showed in its two wins over the Huskies that neutralizing Thabeet (he had a combined 19 points and 17 rebounds in the two games) goes a long way toward beating the Huskies.
UConn is excellent in transition and its big guys – especially Robinson – run the court well. The Huskies don’t rely on forcing turnovers to get their transition game cranked up; instead, it’s blocked and missed shots that fuel the running game.
The Huskies have battled injuries and distractions – and a short bench – to get this far, and they’re in prime position to win their third national title. Interestingly, both titles have come when the Huskies won the West Region. This is the 10th anniversary of the first title and the fifth anniversary of the second title.
Goran Suton has come up big in the NCAA tournament. He is a big-time rebounder and passer whose defense also is solid. Offensively, he has good range and can drag opposing big men out of the lane because of his shooting skills. When that happens, it opens up the paint for Lucas and makes the Spartans that much more effective. When Suton is hitting 15-footers, this team becomes a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses. Raymar Morgan is highly skilled but hasn’t been able to show it in the tournament. He has battled mono from about the midway point of the season and really hasn’t done much of anything. Given Morgan’s lack of production in the tournament, it’s somewhat surprising the Spartans have made it this far. He was averaging 15.2 points and 6.9 rebounds before his health problems arose. In the tourney, others have stepped up and he hasn’t been missed. Given his physical problems, it’s doubtful he makes a big impact in the Final Four, but if he does come around, watch out. Delvon Roe has come on in the last half of the season as he has recovered from offseason knee surgery and become more acclimated to the college game. He’s effective around the basket and on the boards. Draymond Green has seen his minutes increase in the tournament. A guy who averaged just 2.3 points in the regular season, Green has become an important part of the rotation. He’s strong and knows how to carve out space in the low post. If he and Roe stick around for a few seasons, Michigan State is going to have one hellacious frontcourt. Marquise Gray is a big body off the bench and has some shot-blocking skills.
The Spartans are excellent on the boards, and that enables Lucas and the other guards to get out in transition. The Spartans averaged a bit less than 72 points in the regular season, but that relatively low total was more an offshoot of playing in the Big Ten than anything. Don’t be fooled: This is an athletic group, and that athleticism comes up especially big on the defensive end, where the Spartans can be suffocating. This is not the best 3-point shooting team, so on occasion, the Spartans can struggle to score in the half court. Still, Suton’s ability to move outside and hit some mid-range jumpers opens up a lot of space for the guards to get into the lane – and opens space for Roe, Morgan and Green in the low post.
Michigan State lost by 35 to North Carolina at Ford Field in early December. If you watched the game, you would have thought there was no way Michigan State would win the Big Ten, much less make it back to Ford Field in April. But the Spartans are here, and they’re dangerous because of their rebounding, a well-rounded backcourt and Suton’s mid-range shooting ability.
The tempo is something to watch. UConn is at its best when it gets its transition game going, and Michigan State is good in transition as well. Still, it’s easier to see UConn winning a game in the 80s and easier to see Michigan State winning a game in the 60s.
And watch the battle on the boards. Michigan State outrebounds foes by 9.6 per game, UConn by 9.2. UConn also is great at not allowing offensive boards, a trait at which Michigan State is solid. If either team has a big advantage on the boards – say, a plus-six advantage – its chances of winning increase greatly.