OK, so I was wrong. While I had the right reasons, I picked the wrong team. But after watching Michigan State maraud through the Midwest bracket and take out my pre-Tournament pick, Louisville, along the way, I can say this now: The Spartans will take the ’09 national championship. And they’ll do it for a lot of the same reasons I originally picked the ‘Ville:
You know any Big Ten team that gets this far can play lock-down D. At the top of Michigan State’s man-to-man attack is Travis Walton, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year (1.5 spg) and the team’s senior leader. The other Final Four teams all rely on their point guards to get their motor running and come up with clutch shots — Ty Lawson at UNC, A.J. Price at UConn, and Scottie Reynolds at Villanova — and the 6-2, 190-pound Walton can shut any of them down; during the season he held A.J. Abrams (Texas) to eight points and Manny Harris (Michigan) to seven points in respective games.
And if Walton is like MSU’s d-line, Goran Suton is their run-stuffing middle linebacker. The 6-10 senior center has been a beast defensively throughout the Tournament: He held USC’s Taj Gibson to three points (0-2 FG) one game after Gibson torched Boston College for 24 on 10-for-10 shooting, then Suton played Kansas’ Cole Aldrich to a standstill, and he held Louisville’s Samardo Samuels scoreless (0-6 FG) in the Elite Eight. He can hold his own against Hasheem Thabeet, Tyler Hansbrough or any of Villanova’s underappreciated bigs.
Standing between Walton and Suton are a cast of long-armed, quick, and tough defenders who held opponents to 62 points per game on the season — the best among the remaining NCAA teams — and 41 percent field-goal shooting.
Against Louisville, Tom Izzo‘s squad proved they can out-run a running team and beat one of the toughest pressing defenses in the country. Against Kansas — and the Big Ten schedule in general — they more than proved they can handle physical teams who want to slow it down. Suton’s outside shooting can pull opposing bigs away from the rim, and MSU’s bevy of quick guards, including Big Ten Player of the Year Kalin Lucas, Walton, Durrell Summers, Korie Lucious and Chris Allen can shoot and penetrate. Forwards Raymar Morgan and Delvon Roe are skilled and athletic, able to go half-court or up-tempo. No matter what Jim Calhoun, Roy Williams or Jay Wright has in their game plan, Izzo has the personnel to counter.
Walton and Suton are two of the Spartans’ four seniors, and junior Morgan (10.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg) gives MSU three experienced and battle-tested starters. There’s also the benefit of having seen potential championship-game opponent UNC once already this season. Granted, the Tar Heels cracked State by 35 (at Ford Field, the site of this year’s Final Four), but Suton missed that game, and Izzo slapped up another asterisk by pointing out that it was his team’s fourth game in a week. That was also four months ago, and at least this time the Spartans — if UNC advances to the title game — know what’s coming.
Michigan State had won six in a row before dropping a game to Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament, and in the NCAAs pulled out two crunch-time wins against USC and Kansas (meaning their confidence is high), between blowing out Robert Morris and Louisville (they know they’re very good). State has already knocked off the defending champs and the No. 1 overall seed.
Izzo has one national championship (2000), and this marks his fifth Final Four appearance this decade. His postseason record is un-effwit-able. He’ll find whatever it takes to have his team focused, prepared and hungry on gameday, whether it’s that MSU didn’t get a No. 1 seed, or that they’re seen as the team least likely to be left standing by Monday night. (MSU ranked last in our recent DimeMag.com poll asking who could win the national ‘chip, with UNC as an overwhelming favorite.) And if all else fails, Izzo can always have a pre-game showing of 300 (“SPARTANS! WHAT IS YOUR PROFESSION?!?”) and bring in Magic Johnson to speak.
Every championship team needs that one player who can take over a game, and MSU has Lucas (14.6 ppg, 4.6 apg). The 6-foot sophomore point guard hit the go-ahead bucket in the final minute against Kansas after putting Sherron Collins on puppet strings, and for the season notched eight games of 20-plus points. While Walton can shut down the star guards on Carolina, UConn and ‘Nova, Lucas can go shot-for-shot with any of them. If Saturday’s national semifinal against UConn or Monday’s championship game goes down to the wire, Lucas is as reliable as any player in the field at producing the big shot to win it.