Michigan State-North Carolina: A Look at the Matchups

By Steve Yanda
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 6, 2009; 4:00 PM

A look at how the starters match up in tonight's NCAA men's basketball championship game:

Point guard: Kalin Lucas vs. Ty Lawson

There seems to be a fundamental difference in how these two teams push the tempo in their respective attacks, and it may boil down to the distinctive styles of play of Lucas and Lawson. The Tar Heels are relentless in their attack, pushing the ball up the floor immediately off rebounds and inbound plays. They are looking to gain as many possessions as possible, but aren't so caught up in creating advantages in numbers, as is typically the case in a fast break. North Carolina simply operates at a quicker beat -- quick dribbling, quick passes, quick cuts, quick execution -- but mostly within the framework of its half-court sets. Lawson leads the charge in a very efficient manner. His assist-to-turnover ratio (3.4) belies the precision with which he orchestrates the Tar Heels' offense. The challenge Michigan State will face is to disrupt the Tar Heels' fluidity, and much of that pressure falls on Lucas, who does not possess the same defensive presence as back-court mate Travis Walton. This matchup will be critical, as Lawson's ability to contain Lucas when Michigan State has the ball also will be crucial. Michigan State tends to push the pace on fast breaks. With Raymar Morgan, Durrell Summers and Walton, Lucas often has multiple athletic options in transition. Lucas's control of the ball (2.2 assist-to-turnover ratio) will be paramount to the Spartans' success. The more times Lucas turns over the ball, the more possessions North Carolina will get.

Shooting guard: Travis Walton vs. Wayne Ellington

Walton is Michigan State's defensive centerpiece. Spartans Coach Tom Izzo went so far as to say that Walton should be considered the national defensive player of the year, though he may be a tad biased. Walton, who tallied 56 steals on the year, will have his work cut out for him. Ellington has, in the words of North Carolina forward Deon Thompson, "been on a tear since the end of ACC season." Ellington connected on 5 of 7 three-point shots in Saturday's national semifinal win over Villanova. If Ellington gets hot from beyond the arc again, the Spartans could find themselves in a deep hole in a hurry. Thus, Walton will be assigned to guard Ellington rather than Lawson, who is almost equally dangerous on the offensive end. Walton (5.2 points per game) does not produce much on the offensive end, but he typically makes up for it on defense. His pestering of Connecticut guard A.J. Price on Saturday contributed to Price's 5-of-20 shooting performance. He'll need to be as stifling again tonight in order for Michigan State to keep up with North Carolina's high-octane attack.

Swingman: Raymar Morgan vs. Danny Green

Maybe it was the new, lightweight mask Morgan wore Saturday night. Or maybe Morgan finally rediscovered the confidence that made him such an offensive force at the beginning of the season. Whatever the reason, Morgan's standout performance (18 points, nine rebounds) against Connecticut came as a pleasant surprise for the Spartans, one they hope will occur again tonight. The first few minutes of the game appear to be crucial to deciding what kind of night Morgan will have. If he becomes engaged early, he typically continues to perform well. If not, he struggles to gain much traction the rest of the way. Going up against Green, North Carolina's X-factor, Morgan will need to get involved on both ends of the court from the opening tip. Green admitted Saturday night that he and Ellington rarely find their shooting strokes during the same game. One night Ellington will be accurate from the floor. Other nights Green will take over. But when both shooters are finding the back of the net, opposing squads often have little choice other than to throw up their hands. Green's balanced play (100 assists, 51 blocks and 66 steals on the year) makes him a handful of which to keep track. Morgan possesses the athleticism to do so, but is not always locked in on the defensive end.

Power forward: Delvon Roe vs. Deon Thompson

Amid all of North Carolina's dynamic offensive talent, Thompson often is forgotten. Still, he averages 10.6 points and 5.8 rebounds per game, and it would be foolish for the Spartans to overlook Thompson's presence on the court. Roe, a freshman, suffered through lingering knee pain in both legs early in the season, which limited his effectiveness against the Tar Heels the first time these two teams met. But Roe has since developed into a consistent rebounder (5.1 per game) for Michigan State and will look to fulfill that role again tonight. Both players stand 6 feet 8, though Roe gives up roughly 20 pounds to Thompson, a junior. Expect some physical play between these two in the post. Given each team's preference to push the pace, the rebounding battle likely will be a key factor in determining tonight's outcome, which makes the matchup between Roe and Thompson all the more compelling.

Center: Goran Suton vs. Tyler Hansbrough

Suton did not play when North Carolina trounced Michigan State by 35 in early December. In Suton's place, Marquise Gray allowed Hansbrough essentially to do whatever he wanted on the offensive end. Hansbrough finished that game with 25 points and 11 rebounds. Suton is a much more agile and sound defender, and thus should provide more of a challenge for the 2008 national player of the year. Hansbrough has a way of accumulating his points and rebounds methodically throughout the course of a game. He often finishes with double digits in both categories, yet he does so without seemingly ever becoming the focal point of North Carolina's attack. Suton will force Hansbrough to defend along the perimeter, something Hansbrough did not often have to do this season. But with Suton's mid- and long-range shooting touch, it will be a necessity. Suton had a quiet offensive game Saturday night against Connecticut (2-of-5 shooting, four points), and the Spartans likely cannot afford for him to have a similar performance from the Midwest Region's most outstanding player again tonight. Both players are tough and can rebound, but Michigan State needs scoring output from Suton far more than North Carolina does from Hansbrough.

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