North Carolina (5-0) will face No. 4 Michigan State (4-1) in the finals of the PK80 Tournament Sunday. En route to the championship game, Carolina beat Portland and Arkansas, while Michigan State defeated DePaul and UConn.
About the Spartans
Michigan State was among the national title favorites from the moment super freshman Miles Bridges announced his intentions to return to school. Bridges, a sure-fire lottery pick, would’ve been enough to make the Spartans relevant by himself. A returning supporting cast of guys like Joshua Langford, Cassius Winston and Nick Ward means Michigan State is a good team with veteran leadership. But add in a recruiting class headlined by stud Jaren Jackson and Michigan State is a legitimate Final Four threat.
The Spartans are coming off a 20-15 season that ended in a loss to Kansas in the Round of 32. Ranked second nationally to enter the season, Michigan State has a couple of cupcake blowouts sandwiched around a loss to No. 1 Duke. The Spartans were picked as the preseason Big Ten winner by the conference’s coaches.
Players to watch
Miles Bridges isn’t just the best player on Michigan State - he’s one of the best in the country. The 6-7 wing leads the Spartans in scoring and creates consistent mismatches on offense with his unique combination of size and skill. If guarded by a smaller, quicker player, the sophomore can back down his defender or post up in the lane. If a bigger, slower defender draws the assignment, Bridges can beat him off the dribble and create space to knock down threes.
The Spartans also have a plethora of players capable of benefitting from the defensive attention Bridges draws. Forward Nick Ward has an arsenal of post moves to score inside. Cassius Winston, who is coming off a career-high 28-point performance against UConn, can set up on the three-point line and knock down outside shots. Joshua Langford can penetrate inside and find opportunities for his teammates. Jaren Jackson is an athletic forward with the size (6-11) and skill to take over a game.
Add in sharpshooter Matt McQuaid, speedy distributor Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn, savvy senior Gavin Schilling, dynamic freshman Xavier Tillman and a well-rounded forward in Kenny Goins off the bench, and opposing teams can’t afford to focus on Bridges. In short, Michigan State is deep.
Slowing Luke Maye
A year ago, Luke Maye was an undersized forward buried on the depth chart behind future NBA players Isaiah Hicks, Kennedy Meeks and Tony Bradley. Maye was one of the wholesale substitutions Roy Williams would use to prove a point when his starting five wasn’t playing well. He sometimes looked lost and overmatched on the court.
But then March happened. Maye was the Most Outstanding Player of the South Regional after posting a double-double against Butler and netting the game-winner against Kentucky. Now, after dropping career highs in points (28) and rebounds (16) against Arkansas, Maye is a legitimate National Player of the Year candidate. His three-point shooting, post game and passing ability present a conundrum to opposing defenses.
Maye could be matched up with Bridges to start the game, but Michigan State’s star has been battling an ankle injury. If a hobbled Bridges can’t keep up with Maye, the Spartans may use a defense-by-committee approach to stop Carolina’s most veteran contributing forward. If Michigan State can slow Maye, the Spartans will likely win the game. If Maye continues to have his way on offense, though, look out.
Strength vs. Strength
North Carolina is traditionally an offensive powerhouse, and this season is no different. The Heels rank 13th nationally with 92.8 points per game, and Carolina hasn’t scored less than 86 points this season.
Meanwhile, Michigan State’s strength is its smothering defense. Because they conceded 88 points to one of the nation’s best offenses in Duke, the Spartans aren’t ranked high in national scoring defense. But make no mistake: that Sparty D is legit. Besides the Duke game, Michigan State has allowed 70 points only once this year.
So Sunday’s final will be a classic battle of the unstoppable force versus the immovable object. North Carolina will want to push the tempo and establish a transition game from the get-go, while the Spartans will try and make it a half-court game. Whoever succeeds will win.
The Coaching Battle
The PK80 final will feature two of the best college basketball coaches in the game. Roy Williams and Tom Izzo are Hall of Famers with four national championships and sixteen Final Fours between them. Both have career winning percentages over .700 and extensive lists of impressive alumni.
Williams, though, has had Izzo’s number throughout his career. The Carolina head man is 7-0 against Izzo as a Tar Heel, including a dominant win in the 2009 national final. Past records won’t help Williams in this one, though. Both coaches are looking for their first signature win of the year, and the better-coached squad will likely come out on top.
Other than the loss to Duke, Michigan State has looked dominant this year. The Spartans have the experience, depth and talent to win a national title this year. But how can you pick against North Carolina right now? The Tar Heels have looked spectacular out West, and, much like last year’s run to the Maui Invitational, the team has already shown a strong cohesiveness. The Tar Heels will win a close one in Portland, 74-68.