The Big East has two teams in the Final Four, but it’s Michigan State who will be hosting the party. Here’s a look at the matchups Saturday in Detroit:
CONNECTICUT (31-4) vs. MICHIGAN STATE (30-6)
Connecticut has managed to navigate its way through a maze of off-court problems to reach the Final Four for a third time, all in the last 11 years. Coach Jim Calhoun missed the tournament opener as he was hospitalized to treat dehydration, but the Huskies were dominant on the defensive end in a couple of blowout wins. The day before the regional semifinals, a published report alleged the program broke NCAA recruiting rules, but the team refused to be distracted, beating Purdue and Missouri to advance. The defense has dominated all tournament as no opponent has shot better than 41 percent against the Huskies, who have 25 blocked shots in the four games.
Michigan State rode its trademark defense and rebounding — and threw in some balanced scoring — to get to play in a Final Four just 90 miles from campus. The Spartans capped the four-game run by beating overall No. 1 seed Louisville, which was looking to join fellow Big East teams Connecticut and Villanova in the national semifinals. Eight Spartans scored in double figures over the four games, but it was the steady play inside and sudden offense of Goran Suton that allowed the Spartans to reach the Final Four for the fifth time since 1999. The regional semifinal win over defending national champion Kansas will become the signature win in the run as the Spartans overcame a 13-point first-half deficit and went 16-of-17 from the free throw to rally for the win.
No. 1 Connecticut beat No. 16 Chattanooga 103-47; No. 9 Texas A&M 92-66; No. 5 Purdue 72-60; No. 3 Missouri 82-75.
No. 2 Michigan State beat No. 15 Robert Morris 77-62; No. 10 Southern California 74-69; No. 3 Kansas 67-62; No. 1 Louisville 64-52.
Every time Jim Calhoun has taken Connecticut to a Final Four he has left with a national championship. His 804 career wins is sixth on the all-time list, but he’s facing a week of questions about the recruiting allegations.
Tom Izzo has taken Michigan State to the Final Four four times, winning it all in 2000, with his last appearance in 2005. Every player who has stayed for years under Izzo has reached the Final Four.
The first Connecticut player you notice is 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet. His ability to alter and block shots allows the Huskies to get going on offense. Jerome Dyson had been the team’s best perimeter shooter and defender, but he injured his knee in early February and was lost for the season. It took a while for players to step up and fill the void, but A.J. Price and Stanley Robinson have increased their scoring averages over the last seven games. And freshman Kemba Walker had a breakout performance with 23 points and five assists against Missouri. Senior forward Jeff Adrien is often overlooked in the balanced attack, but he averages a double-double.
Kalin Lucas, the Big Ten’s player of the year, leads the Spartans in scoring and assists, but Suton, who missed six games early in the season with a knee injury, has become the team’s steadying force. The senior center averages 10.1 points and 8.3 rebounds, numbers that grew to 19.5 and 9.5 in the Spartans’ last two wins. Travis Walton, the conference’s defensive player of the year, is a standout shutdown defender. He was one of the keys in ending Louisville’s 14-game winning streak and holding the Cardinals 23 points below their average.
Connecticut’s NCAA success has all been recent. Calhoun has led the Huskies to all but four of their 46 tournament wins since 1990, including two national championships.
Michigan State’s first national championship is one of college basketball’s most famous as Magic Johnson led the Spartans over Larry Bird and Indiana State in 1979. Mateen Cleaves was the leader of the team that won it all in 2000, the middle year of three straight Final Four appearances under Izzo.
The Huskies must show the off-court issues won’t affect how they play, something they have been good at over the years. They also must handle a crowd — a big crowd of about 75,000 — that will be wearing a lot of green.
Many coaches contend it’s always better to get away during a tournament, but the Spartans will end this one in front of plenty family and friends. Forward Raymar Morgan, second on the Spartans in scoring (10.5) and rebounding (5.4), struggled this tournament before breaking his nose against Kansas. He played the first half against Louisville wearing a protective mask then ditched it in the second but still finished without any points.
VILLANOVA (30-7) vs. NORTH CAROLINA (32-4)
The argument can be made that no team in the tournament has played defense the way Villanova has. The Wildcats followed an early 3-point scare from American with smothering defensive performances against UCLA and Duke before surviving a Big East battle with Pittsburgh in the regional final. Despite not having any real size, the Wildcats have plenty of perimeter players who get out and defend and convert almost every turnover into points. It wasn’t all defense, however, as the Wildcats scored at least 77 points in the four games. Except for the opener when Dwayne Anderson and Dante Cunningham both had 25 points, it has been a balanced attack despite struggles from 3-point range.
Except for the first half of the LSU game in the second round, no team has really challenged North Carolina, and the Tar Heels even pulled away for a 14-point win over the Tigers. The biggest worry has been Ty Lawson’s toe injury, but after missing the opener against Radford, he has looked like the point guard who was the Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year. The Tar Heels almost matched their season average of 90 points per game in the tournament, but it was their defense that stood out, especially in the regional final as they held Oklahoma to 60 points, 19 below its average.
No. 3 Villanova beat No. 14 American 80-67; No. 6 UCLA 89-69; No. 2 Duke 77-54; No. 1 Pittsburgh 78-76.
No. 1 North Carolina beat No. 16 Radford 101-58; No. 8 LSU 84-70; No. 4 Gonzaga 98-77; No. 2 Oklahoma 72-60.
Villanova’s Jay Wright is the Final Four rookie among the coaches, but his program has been very successful, reaching the round of 16 four of the last five years. He is a disciple of Rollie Massimino, the man who led the Wildcats to their stunning national championship in 1985. There is no doubt he will be the best-dressed of the four coaches.
Roy Williams is making his third Final Four appearance, and second straight, with North Carolina, having won it all in 2005. He took Kansas to the Final Four four times from 1991-2003, and was an assistant to Dean Smith for several of his trips with North Carolina, including the 1982 national championship.
Cunningham was the Big East’s most improved player this season, one in which the undersized center went at it game after game in a physical conference. Scottie Reynolds has been the Wildcats’ go-to guy, and he was just that in the regional final when his driving layup with .5 seconds left won the game. There are a lot of role players on the roster. Each has had an impact from Dwayne Anderson’s buzzer-beating layup against Marquette in the Big East tournament to Reggie Redding coming up big in the victory over Pittsburgh in the regular season. Then there are the Coreys off the bench — Corey Fisher, the slashing guard, and Corey Stokes, the team’s best 3-point shooter.
Tyler Hansbrough, the reigning national player of the year, doesn’t seem to have any school or ACC records left, but he’s still looking for his first championship. His averages of 21.3 points and 8.3 rebounds don’t begin to tell how important he is to this team. Then there’s Lawson, whose speed and open-court ballhandling make the Tar Heels the offensive power they are. In his three tournament games he averaged 20.3 points with 20 assists and a near-perfect two turnovers. There are plenty of other scorers, including Wayne Ellington and Danny Green, who both shoot better than 40 percent from 3-point range.
Villanova was in the first Final Four in 1939, and the Wildcats were one of UCLA’s many runners-up, losing to the Bruins in 1971. But it’s the 1985 team — as an 8 seed the lowest to ever win it all — that is remembered for the almost perfect second half in a stunning win over Georgetown and Patrick Ewing.
North Carolina tied UCLA with its 18th Final Four appearance, and the Tar Heels could tie Indiana for third place on the national championship list with their fifth title.
The Wildcats were never atop the powerful Big East all season, but they were in the Top 25 all season and near the top 10 for the last month. They don’t mind being overlooked, but it will be interesting to see how they handle being part of college basketball’s showcase event.
North Carolina is the only team with players who have Final Four experience. The big four of Hansbrough, Lawson, Green and Ellington all returned with the goal of winning a national championship and are the only ones in the semifinals with that kind of pressure.
Jim O’Connell/AP Basketball Writer