Season Rewind: The Big Ten regular season champions, Michigan St had a relatively poor start to the season, taking big losses to both Maryland and UNC, and while it was clearly the conference's top team, fell by double-digits to Ohio St. in the Big Ten tourney semifinals. Once the NCAA tournament began, though, the Spartans turned it on, edging USC and Kansas to make the Elite Eight, where they shut Louisville down to progress to Detroit. Connecticut, which started the season 11-0, entered the tournament on a two game losing streak, including that epic six-overtime affair with Syracuse. The Huskies managed to right the ship by the time the NCAA tournament began, having a dominant first weekend that saw them blow-out Chattanooga and Texas A&M, and looked very good in beating Purdue and Missouri in Arizona.
Basic Matchup: This game matches up a pair of teams that are awfully similar in their basic approach to the game; both play an inside-oriented offensive style, but really earn their wins on the defensive end. Connecticut is the better offensive team, as it complements strong inside shooting and domination on the offensive glass with frequent trips to the free-throw line. The Huskies can be turnover-prone at times, but in general do a good job of turning possessions into scoring opportunities inside. Michigan St may find itself having a lot of trouble containing the Huskies' big-man attack, as the Spartans have been only mediocre at defending the interior. While they will be able to reduce UConn's advantage on the glass, thanks to some of the country's best defensive rebounding, this probably won't be enough to keep the Huskies at bay.
The Numbers: Tom Izzo's teams have a reputation for being strong on the glass, and this year's Michigan St. offense is no exception, getting back 41% of its missed shots. MUS's problem is that there are often too many misses, as the Spartans shoot under 50% inside the arc, where the majority of their shots are taken. They have good ball movement, and won't be too prone to turn the ball over against a Connecticut team that doesn't press much, but will have trouble making shots against the Huskies' stalwart interior defense. UConn holds opponents to just 40% from inside the arc, and blocks nearly 20% of opponents' attempts, but the real talent of the team is avoiding fouls; the Huskies commit fewer than any team in the country. If there is an advantage for Michigan St., it will be on the glass: Connecticut lost both of its games to the nation's best offensive rebounding team, Pitt, and were pushed by a West Virginia team that was strong on the offensive boards.
UCONN Lineup: There are few players in the country that have the impact of 7-3 junior Hasheem Thabeet, who is one of the nation's elite shot-blockers, and averages a double-double. Thabeet takes handles his limiting scoring chances well, but often finds himself playing a small role in the offense, usually to the Huskies' detriment. Senior Jeff Adrien also averages a double-double, and while he's not as strong as Thabeet inside, he's got a lot more offensive upside, as demonstrated by his 23-point showing against Texas A&M. A.J. Price is the Huskies primary guard, and the only player on the team who is a consistent danger from behind the arc. Since returning in mid-December, Stanley Robinson has gradually rounded into form, and his averages of 15 points and 7 boards so far in the tournament show just what an effective interior option he's become. Freshman Kemba Walker lit up Missouri for 23 points, and his quickness makes him a dangerous weapon. Craig Austrie has struggled with his shot, but has occasional bursts of strong offensive play, as he did against Purdue.
MSU Lineup: Kalin Lucas may have won the Big Ten's Player of the Year award, but the player who will be key to Michigan St.'s success in this game is senior center Goran Suton. Suton led the Big Ten in rebounding, and while he's not the first offensive option, he was very effective in Indianapolis, where he averaged nearly 20 points over the two games. Lucas leads the Spartans in scoring and assists, and does a pretty good job of ball control, but his shooting is somewhat suspect, barely at 40% from the field. A big question mark for Michigan St. will be the play of Raymar Morgan, who has had a difficult season, and suffered a broken nose last weekend. If Morgan can chip in with some solid shooting and a strong showing on the glass (which he doesn't done all Tournament), it will be huge boon to the Spartans hopes. Beyond these three, a fairly deep group of reasonably effective bench players get a good chunk of minutes for Michigan St., giving Tom Izzo a lot of potential options. Sophomore Durrell Summers is the team's most effective long-range shooter, and has hit seven of his last 10 three-point attempts. Freshman Delvon Roe is a good inside scorer and rebounder who has had trouble finding a consistent level and struggles at the free throw line. Travis Walton is 6-2, and is a good ball distributor who leads the team in steals, while taking almost all of his shots from inside the arc. Sophomore Chris Allen puts up a lot of shots, but is just barely average at making them.
In Sum: Michigan St. and Connecticut play pretty similar styles, but in almost every area the Huskies have the edge. While Michigan St.'s ability on the offensive glass will cause UConn trouble, I can't see the Spartans defending the inside well enough to get the victory.
Winner: Connecticut Margin: 4-8
Evan Dorey's game previews & rankings are based on Elo Ratings and efficiency ratings. Elo Ratings are fairly simple, all teams are assigned an initial number of points, which is the same for all teams, eliminating preseason bias. Then, as the season progresses, when a team wins it gains points, and when it loses it drops points. The amount of points that are gained or lost depend on the level of the opponent (beating a cupcake gets you little, beating #1 will be a big increase), the scoring margin of the game (which is capped), and the game's location. To take a look at Evan's College Basketball Elo Ratings, visit his website or blog where he discuss the rankings, along with other statistical observations about big games and interesting teams.