UConn vs. MSU: The matchup

Ford Field, Detroit
ANNOUNCERS: Jim Nantz play-by-play, Clark Kellogg analyst
Connecticut vs. Michigan State, 6:07 p.m.
Hashem Thabeet is a defensive force in the middle for the Huskies.

LOCATION: Storrs, Conn.
RECORD: 31-4
COACH: Jim Calhoun (45-18 NCAA tournament record)
ASSISTANTS: George Blaney, Andre LaFleur, Patrick Sellers
NATIONAL TITLES: Two – 1999, 2004
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Won West Region as No. 1 seed. Beat No. 16 Chattanooga 103-47, beat No. 9 Texas A&M 92-66, beat No. 5 Purdue 72-60, beat No. 3 Missouri 82-75.

F Jeff Adrien, 6-7/243, Sr.
F Stanley Robinson, 6-9/210, Jr.
C Hasheem Thabeet, 7-3/263, Jr.
G Craig Austrie, 6-3/176, Sr.
G A.J. Price, 6-2/181, Sr.
F Gavin Edwards, 6-9/234, Jr.
G Kemba Walker, 6-1/172, Fr.
Connecticut lost guard Jerome Dyson for the season on Feb. 11, when he tore cartilage in his knee, but the Huskies have shaken off that injury and moved on without him. The injury has put a big crimp in UConn’s depth, though. A.J. Price is the leading scorer and assist man, and UConn cannot afford an off-game from him. He is the Huskies’ best 3-point shooter and their most capable ball-handler. Craig Austrie moved into the starting lineup when Dyson went down. He’s not the scorer or defender that Dyson was, but he’s experienced, has 3-point range and works hard on defense. Austrie is outstanding from the free-throw line, though he isn’t a particularly good shooter overall. Kemba Walker was fabulous in the West Region final, putting his quickness to good use. He can get into the lane and finish. Despite his lack of size, he is a good rebounder, and he can be a tenacious on-ball defender. His 3-point shooting is spotty, though, and he can be overpowered by bigger guards.

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.

Kalin Lucas is a game-changing guard.

LOCATION: East Lansing, Mich.
RECORD: 30-6
COACH: Tom Izzo (30-10 NCAA tournament record)
ASSISTANTS: Mike Garland, Mark Montgomery, Dwayne Stephens
FINAL FOUR APPEARANCES: This is the seventh
NATIONAL TITLES: Two – 1979, 2000
HOW THEY GOT HERE: Won Midwest Region as No. 2 seed. Beat No. 15 Robert Morris 77-62, beat No. 10 USC 74-69, beat No. 3 Kansas 67-62, beat No. 1 Louisville 64-52.

C Goran Suton, 6-10/245, Sr.
F Raymar Morgan, 6-8/225, Jr.
F Delvon Roe, 6-8/225 Fr.
G Kalin Lucas, 6-0/180, Soph.
G Travis Walton, 6-2/190, Sr.
G Chris Allen, 6-3/205, Soph.
F Marquise Gray, 6-8/235, Sr.
F Draymond Green, 6-6/235, Fr.
G Durrell Summers, 6-4/195, Soph.
Kalin Lucas heads one of the nation’s best backcourts. Lucas might be the best all-around guard in the Big Ten. He’s an inconsistent shooter, but even when his shot is off, he’s an effective player because of his playmaking and defensive abilities. He has great quickness and puts that to good use on forays into the lane, where – despite his size – he is strong enough to finish. While Lucas spends most of his time at point guard, he can slide to shooting guard at times because Travis Walton is comfortable running the point. Walton is the team’s best defender and a solid leader. His offense has been a problem in the past, but it has improved some this season. Still, he doesn’t play for his offensive skills. Durrell Summers does play because of his offensive skills. He has good size and athleticism, but the Spartans’ talent level is such that he’s not asked to shoulder a big offensive load. His defense could be better; the same goes for Chris Allen, a big-time shooter off the bench. Allen is the Spartans’ most prolific 3-point shooter, but he shot less than 33 percent from beyond the arc in the regular season. When his shot isn’t falling, he loses playing time.

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 best way – only way? – to beat Connecticut is to make the Huskies shoot jump shots. That means keeping their guards out of the lane and the ball out of the hands of Adrien, Robinson and Thabeet. Does Michigan State have the size and bulk to stymie UConn’s frontcourt? Green and Roe are going to have to play beyond their years; they need to bump and grind with UConn’s big guys and avoid fouls. The same goes for Suton. And if Suton can hit some mid-range shots, it will be quite interesting to see how UConn attempts to defend him. Will Thabeet follow him outside? As good as Adrien and Robinson are, their presence in the lane isn’t nearly as intimidating as Thabeet’s. Even if Thabeet is down low, Michigan State has to take it at him. The Spartans can’t let his presence alone dictate their offense. If Suton’s shot is off and another big man can’t pick up the slack, Michigan State is going to have trouble scoring unless its guards get hot from the outside. Dyson’s absence has hurt UConn’s perimeter defense, and Michigan State could get some good looks from beyond the arc.

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.