Posted: Thursday March 31, 2005 6:06PM; Updated: Friday April 1, 2005 9:58AM
Shannon Brown is the lone advantage the Spartans enjoy in their matchup with UNC.
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North Carolina (31-4) vs. Michigan State (26-6) Saturday, 9 p.m. (approximately) EST, CBS Edward Jones Dome (46,469)
North Carolina is talented with no fewer than five NBA players on its roster and it has skated by the past two rounds with talent. But the Tar Heels cannot afford to turn it on and off against Michigan State. The Spartans may not be as good as the Tar Heels on paper, but the Spartans play hard, aren't intimidated by anyone and are riding high after consecutive victories over Duke and Kentucky. If North Carolina doesn't come to play, Michigan State will send the Heels home.
Lightning quick with a killer first step, Felton is the Tar Heels' engine and never quits. He has been effective by taking defenders off the dribble. He also can hit the open 3-pointer. But Felton is most dangerous when penetrating because he has so many good athletes to dish to when defensive help comes over. If Felton is able to get into the lane at will, Michigan State is in for a long night.
For the past two seasons Spartans coach Tom Izzo has played musical point guards, shifting different players in at the position, but has settled on Neitzel because he doesn't make mistakes. Indeed, Neitzel is a steady -- albeit unspectacular -- hand, and the Spartans are 11-2 with him in the starting lineup. There's no way he can check Felton for an entire game. Problem is, no one on Michigan State can. Expect several players to get their shot at Felton. But unfortunately for the Spartans, unless Felton gets into foul trouble, no one is likely to succeed.
When he's on his game, McCants is one of the best players in the country. He's strong, tough inside, can take defenders off the dribble and has a picture-perfect stroke. He also sulks and can fade in and out of games. Fortunately for North Carolina, McCants has been on his game lately, scoring 17 in its win over Villanova and 21 in the regional final over Wisconsin. If he's on, the Tar Heels will be running on all cylinders.
Ager has the size and athleticism to check McCants, but he doesn't have the skill. He'll have to make up for it with effort and help from teammates. On the offensive end, Ager is a slasher and can step out and hit the 3. He'll need to bring his A-game on both ends of the floor for the Spartans to stay in this one.
Manual has been very good at playing his role -- driving to the basket, filling the lane, playing solid defense -- and his experience helped late in games. He has some extra motivation because behind him is super-sub Marvin Williams ready to give the team a spark off the bench. A defensive specialist, Manual will be counted on to shut down Brown.
Brown is Michigan State's best athlete and has been phenomenal in the NCAA tournament. A slasher with range from the outside, Brown is fearless and explosive. He has become the Spartans' No. 1-offensive option and his energy is infectious. He scored a career-high 24 points in the thrilling win over Kentucky and was named the Austin Region's Most Outstanding Player. Michigan State will need a stellar effort from him on both ends of the floor.