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 Tuesday, March 14
Michigan State vs. North Carolina
 
By Jay Bilas
Special to ESPN.com

 This will be a great game, and it has some history to it. In 1998, North Carolina had perhaps the best team in the nation with Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter, and defeated a young upstart group of Spartans in the NCAA Tournament in Greensboro, N.C. Tom Izzo joked that it was a home game for Carolina, and he wasn't far off from being correct. The fact was, Carolina was the better team that year, and Michigan State was learning how to win at the highest level.

Well, guess what? The Spartans know how to win at the highest level now, and its time for them to show the ACC non-believers how significant and difficult it was to go 15-1 in the Big Ten last season. While Duke's run through the less-than-spectacular ACC was an outstanding achievement last year, I would argue that Michigan State's run in the Big Ten was tougher and more meaningful.

When Michigan State has the ball
North Carolina has pledged to get back to pressure defense, the fullcourt scramble that made the Tar Heels so feared in the '80s. The Spartans, when Mateen Cleaves is running the point, love to push the ball upcourt for Cleaves to penetrate and create and to get open shots in transition. Obviously, with Cleaves out of the game, David Thomas or Charlie Bell will be less capable of doing that. However, it would be a mistake to think that Michigan State will become a walk-it-up team without Cleaves. They still have stunning athletes and the ability to get up and down the court with anyone in the nation.

Players to watch
There are a lot of them. Watch for a pair of freshmen -- Michigan State's Jason Richardson and North Carolina's Joseph Forte. Richardson is a great athlete, perhaps the best athlete that Tom Izzo has had at Michigan State. Richardson runs the court and finishes above the rim, and he is on his way to becoming a big-time player.

Forte played at DeMatha under Morgan Wooten, and just makes plays. He is a good athlete who plays with tenacity, and he knows how to score. Carolina needs his quickness and scoring ability.

Michigan State runs an effective secondary break, which often incorporates screens on the ball. In fact, the Spartans run a lot of sets which start with or include ballscreens to allow the point guard room to turn the corner and penetrate. Tom Izzo includes a lot of staggered screens and backscreens to compliment this action. Michigan State also runs some 1-4 high action, some 2-3 high action and some box sets.

Thomas is the key to this game. He won't win the game with his handling of the point, but the Spartans need him to be sure-handed in running the show so that they can concentrate on other things. He is a 6-7 athlete with ball-handling skills and the ability to look over the top of defenses to make passes. While he is not the penetrator that Cleaves is, Thomas is a very good player.

Morris Peterson is one of the top swingmen in the nation, and runs the court and finishes as well as anyone. Peterson is a lefty who can drill 3-pointers or put it down and blow by you to finish above the rim. Peterson makes great reads of the defense, and has back- to-the-basket ability. Mike Chappell is a great shooter, and has gotten stronger on the defensive end.

An important element for the Spartans will be the inside game. Andre Hutson and A.J. Granger will have to battle Kris Lang and Brendan Haywood inside without fouling, and Michigan State will need a concerted effort to control the glass. Carolina is big and well-schooled inside, and Michigan State's rebounding prowess will be tested.

When North Carolina has the ball
Michigan State is an excellent halfcourt man-to-man defensive team. The Spartans double team inside with great rotation and help and recover skills, and they bump cutters. Tom Izzo and his staff do a great job of scouting opponents, then working out defensive adjustments that their team buys into and executes. This is not a team that gambles; they play straight up. While Michigan State is a man defensive team, it will play zone on out-of-bounds situations.

Michigan State will face one of the best-coached and well-prepared teams in America when it plays North Carolina. The Tar Heels run their stuff very well. Carolina's focus is, and always has been, to get the ball inside for high percentage shots and to get fouled. They do a great job if interior screening, and if defenses do not communicate, it's an easy two (at least) for the light blue.

North Carolina has always run its "free lance" or motion offense in halfcourt situations, which is very difficult to scout and defend. However, like many teams, Carolina has gravitated to more set plays over the last couple of years. The Heels run wing ballscreens to look to the post or for a backscreen, and they run a lot of backdoors and some 1-4 low action. Watch for the interior screening the Heels do -- it's fun to watch but murder to defend.

Ed Cota is perhaps the best passer the ACC has seen in recent memory, and might wind up as the all-time assist leader in NCAA history. Cota is best with the ball in his hands, and his signature high dribble and skip step are ACC staples. Cota exploits holes and has great confidence and poise. He makes great reads, and is almost impossible to stay in front of off the dribble.

Joseph Forte is an important newcomer for Carolina, and he is an athletic and fundamentally sound shooter who has the athletic ability to drive and finish at the hole. Forte has deep range and pull-up ability.

Kris Lang is perhaps the brightest big man prospect in the ACC right now, and has big strong hands and the ability to hit jump hooks with his right or his left. Lang has a great touch, and he is a hard worker. Haywood is one of the biggest players in America, and after working on his footwork and agility, is very effective taking the ball strong to the hole. Jason Capel is a fundamentally sound performer who is finally healthy, and passes, handles, rebounds and shoots with skill. Capel could be ready for a breakout season.

 


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