Thursday, November 10, 2011

Opening Tips: Michigan State vs. North Carolina

Harrison Barnes passed on NBA draft last year, and now leads top-ranked North Carolina into season opener against Michigan State on board USS Carl Vinson. (Photo courtesy of The Hoops Report's Ryan Feldman)

For the fifth time in as many years; and 14th time overall, two of the most prestigious college basketball programs in the nation meet, this time on Veterans' Day aboard the USS Carl Vinson outside San Diego.

North Carolina and Michigan State, who played for the 2009 national championship and reprised their Ford Field encounter inside the Smith Center during the 2009 Big Ten/ACC Challenge, face one another for the first time since that aforementioned contest in Chapel Hill; one in which the Tar Heels defended their title behind 22 points from Ed Davis en route to an 89-82 win over the Spartans. This time, it's Michigan State who comes in as the young team trying to prove they are still among the nation's elite, while North Carolina enters the new season as the favorites to win the program's seventh championship, and third in the last eight years. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Quicken Loans Carrier Classic.

Michigan State Spartans (2010-11 Record: 19-15, 9-9 Big Ten)
Head Coach: Tom Izzo (17th season, 383-161)

Projected Starting Lineup: (Stats reflect 2010-11 season)
G Brandon Wood (6-2 Sr., 16.7 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 46% FG, 36% 3pt, 66% FT, 3.1 APG, 1.7 SPG at Valparaiso)
G Keith Appling (6-1 So., 6.4 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 44% FG, 41% 3pt, 90% FT, 1.3 APG)
G Branden Dawson (6-6 Fr., 28.7 PPG, 18.6 RPG, 5.6 APG at Wallace High School in Gary, Indiana)
F Draymond Green (6-7 Sr., 12.6 PPG, 8.6 RPG, 43% FG, 37% 3pt, 68% FT, 4.1 APG, 1.1 BPG, 1.8 SPG)
C Adreian Payne (6-10 So., 2.5 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 47% FG, 49% FT)

Key Reserves:
C Derrick Nix (6-9 Jr., 2.7 PPG, 2.0 RPG, 60% FG, 53% FT)
G Austin Thornton (6-5 Sr., 2.0 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 34% FG, 93% FT)

Keys To Victory:
  • Dominate inside.
The Spartans will make no secret of the fact that Draymond Green is their best player, but no one man can do it all. With a Carolina frontcourt that helped the Tar Heels average over 42 rebounds and five blocked shots per game a year ago, the onus will be placed on sophomore Adreian Payne and junior Derrick Nix to give Green the help he needs up front against the likes of 6-11 John Henson and seven-footer Tyler Zeller.
  • Perimeter offense.
Michigan State's three-guard set is back again for the second consecutive season with Tom Izzo's smaller lineup. The Spartans, who shot 36 percent from three-point range as a team last season and averaged 15 assists per game, will be reliant upon point guard Keith Appling to anchor the backcourt as he makes the move from playing off the ball. Draymond Green has established himself as Sparty's Mr. Versatility, and should get some open looks early on if Michigan State can work around the mismatches in size that favor the bigger North Carolina lineup.
  • Get the new guys involved.
Michigan State welcomes senior Brandon Wood after he graduated a year early and transferred from Valparaiso. Similar to how Greg Paulus still had a year of eligibility left when he transferred from Duke to play football at Syracuse, Wood has one more year left as well; and should make an immediate impact at the two, where he will replace Durrell Summers. Freshman Branden Dawson, who put up 25 points and 14 rebounds in the two exhibition games the Spartans played in preparation for this matchup, will also start in the backcourt right away. Dawson has an NBA-type body already according to recruiting experts, who are hyping the Indiana native as Tom Izzo's most talented recruit since Shannon Brown. Dawson will be welcomed to the college game in one of the grandest ways possible, as he will draw none other than All-American Harrison Barnes as a defensive matchup, regarded by many to be the best player in the nation. If Wood and Dawson can hold their own against Barnes and Dexter Strickland, this game will be a lot closer than some envision.

Now, for a look at what Sparty matches up against...

No. 1 North Carolina Tar Heels (2010-11 Record: 29-8, 14-2 ACC)
Head Coach: Roy Williams (9th season at UNC, 225-62; 643-163 overall)

Projected Starting Lineup: (Stats reflect 2010-11 season)
G Kendall Marshall (6-4 So., 6.2 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 42% FG, 38% 3pt, 69% FT, 6.2 APG, 1.1 SPG)
G Dexter Strickland (6-3 Jr., 7.5 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 46% FG, 69% FT, 2.2 APG, 1.2 SPG)
F Harrison Barnes (6-8 So., 15.7 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 42% FG, 34% 3pt, 75% FT, 1.4 APG)
F John Henson (6-11 Jr., 11.7 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 50% FG, 48% FT, 3.2 BPG)
C Tyler Zeller (7-0 Sr., 15.7 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 55% FG, 76% FT, 1.2 BPG)

Key Reserves:
G Leslie McDonald (6-5 Jr., 7.0 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 39% FG, 38% 3pt, 74% FT)
G Reggie Bullock (6-7 So., 6.1 PPG, 2.8 RPG, 37% FG, 57% FT)
F James Michael McAdoo (6-9 Fr., 21.6 PPG, 8.1 RPG at Norfolk Christian High School in Norfolk, Virginia)

Keys To Victory:
  • Prepare for a shootout.
Even though Michigan State has shot just 18 percent (7-for-38) from long range in their two exhibition games, the Spartans are still a qualified three-point threat. Their smaller lineup and proven sharpshooters in Keith Appling and Draymond Green should entice Tom Izzo to go for the long ball early and often. This poses two intriguing options for Roy Williams, who can either employ a zone defense to attack the lines; or he could respond with his own trifecta specialists in Leslie McDonald and even point guard Kendall Marshall, both of whom shot 38 percent each from beyond the arc last season. Harrison Barnes (34 percent) could also be counted on to make a clutch shot from behind the line.
  • Pound it inside.
John Henson and Tyler Zeller should be able to beat their Michigan State matchups inside with their size and reach advantages, while Harrison Barnes will be able to make things happen both in the paint and from the wing against a young and smaller Michigan State backcourt. Now in his first full season as a starter since replacing Larry Drew halfway through last year, sophomore point guard Kendall Marshall could turn tomorrow night's game into his own personal exhibition. The 6-4 Marshall is considered to be the best passer in the nation, and has an average of over six assists per game during his rookie campaign a year ago to back it up.
  • Bench scoring.
Aside from Derrick Nix and Austin Thornton, Michigan State's bench is now inexperienced following the graduation of Mike Kebler and departure of Korie Lucious midway through last season. This is where the Tar Heels can really take control of the game. Sophomore swingman Reggie Bullock and junior sharpshooter Leslie McDonald, who singlehandedly put Rutgers into a deep hole with one triple after another at Madison Square Garden a year ago, are talented enough to be starters on just about any other team in the country. Roy Williams can also count on freshmen P.J. Hairston and James Michael McAdoo to make a huge impact, the latter in much the same way former UNC sixth man Marvin Williams did when he helped the coach win his first of two national championships back in 2005.

So, Who Wins?
This is not the David vs. Goliath matchup that some are hyping it up to be. Even though North Carolina is far more talented than Michigan State, the Spartans should never be counted out; and return enough significant pieces from a group that nearly came back from a 23-point deficit against UCLA in last year's NCAA Tournament. Green will keep Michigan State in this game early; but as the leader of this younger than usual Spartan unit, he will need to remind his teammates that if North Carolina comes out of the box firing like they did in each of their last two meetings with Tom Izzo's team, it could be over quickly for a team that gets another strong early-season test when they take on Duke at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday. The margin for error is razor-thin for this team, as just a handful of mistakes could lead to an 0-2 start. For Carolina, this game marks the start of a two-day, coast-to-coast trip, as they hit the road against reigning Big South champion UNC Asheville on Sunday. It will be one of the more entertaining games (the backdrop alone will provide a reason to watch) of the season, but the greater talent and experience will win out. Carolina takes this one, but not before getting taken as close to the limit as possible in the season opener.

Your Final: North Carolina 86, Michigan State 81

North Carolina and Michigan State in a pregame shootaround aboard the USS Carl Vinson, where they will play tomorrow's Quicken Loans Carrier Classic in first-ever college basketball game on board an aircraft carrier. (Photo courtesy of Sports Illustrated and CBS Sports' Seth Davis)

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