Michigan State survived a nail biter by the narrowest of margins on Friday. A 2 point victory over #1 seeded Virginia was a slugfest from the get go. The must watch billing the game received in advance was well worth it as both squads were top notch and showed just as much. Virginia’s suffocating defense was evident throughout the game and indicated in the low final score. Michigan State’s dynamic offense was not in the building. However, MSU made up for it with its own shutdown defense and clutch free throw shooting down the stretch.
Virginia was easily Michigan State’s toughest Tournament opponent thus far. The Cavaliers were the spitting mirror image of Michigan State in a different direction. Where the Spartans killed with speed, the Cavaliers killed in the slow game. Where the Spartans were bigger, the Cavaliers were just as mentally big. In the end, free throws and a couple of possessions were the keys to victory for MSU. Now, waiting in the shadows is Connecticut.
The Huskies are a hot team at the moment. They’ve made it this far through sheer tenacity and determination. Without legendary head coach Jim Calhoun, the Huskies have made quite the statement with their current spot in the Elite Eight. Now, they face arguably their toughest test of the season in Michigan State. At the beginning of last season, the Spartans dropped a game to the Huskies in Germany. However, that was last season, and these are two completely different looking teams this season. UConn advanced to this point by knocking off #3 seeded Iowa State in a barn burner of a game. They are not afraid of higher seeds and relish the spotlight as underdogs.
Since the stage has been set, one question remains: How do these two teams compare? Shabazz Napier will definitely carry an elite player billing heading into this game. He is the star in all of this. Michigan State’s equivalent would be Adreian Payne. However, these are two entirely different players playing two entirely different positions. There’s absolutely no way to compare the two. That is unless one looks at the intangibles. Napier is looking to up his draft stock as a victory would all but guarantee him as a lottery pick in the upcoming NBA draft. Payne has the same draft to think about, but something else entirely is a motivator. That is to avoid being in the first senior class under Tom Izzo to not make it to a Final Four.
UConn’s team as a whole has a chip on their collective shoulder. Michigan State’s does as well. Let’s see, beyond the intangibles and motivators, how these teams compare. Here are my x-factors for this game.
1. The Dawn of Dawson
Branden Dawson has been the leading scorer for Michigan State in its last two tournament games after having a relatively quiet start. A lot of that had to do with the play of Adreian Payne. However, Branden Dawson took a cue from the senior leader and has put the Spartans on his back through its toughest, closest games as of yet. If Branden Dawson can continue to fly around the court and contribute at his current pace on both offense and defense, watch out. This will already be an exciting game, but Branden Dawson may very well emerge as its most exciting player.
2. Shabazz Academy
Shabazz Napier is Uconn’s most consistently good player. He has pulled his weight, shown his worth, and has been a proven winner up until this point. There is no reason to believe that he won’t contribute in this game as he has in games past. Napier has the ability to take over against MSU and beat them at their own game. As the saying goes, those who live by the sword die by the sword. Napier is a clutch shooter from beyond the arc, mid range, and slashing in the paint. He can beat teams on both ends of the court and do so in commanding fashion. UConn’s chances hinge almost entirely on the play of Shabazz Napier.
3. Beyond the Arc
Michigan State’s three point shooting can be scary when it is clicking. However, MSU doesn’t have established perimeter shooters like UConn does in Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. These two Huskies feed off each other’s success and can get hot fast from beyond the three point arc. The duo is very reminiscent of Stauskas and LeVert of Michigan. If Michigan State, and particularly Branden Dawson, can hold these two in check, it will be yet another Final Four for Sparty. Michigan State effectively silenced Stauskas and LeVert in the Big Ten Tournament championship match and can do so in this game as well. Look for Branden Dawson to be the key perimeter defender for MSU.
Prediction: MSU 84 UConn 75
This game will certainly be yet another entertaining brawl of a game. It doesn’t seem as though UConn has been tested thus far. Michigan State has proven it can win regardless of scoring, tempo, or opponent. The game against Virginia sold me on MSU winning it all. This game against UConn should be another hard fought victory for the Spartans. If Michigan State can effectively silence the killer duo of Napier and Boatright, look for the margin of victory for MSU to be even bigger. Sparty advances to the Final Four on the backs of its seniors.
That’s just my opinion though. What do you think? Let me know in the comments below. Go Green!