Final Four Betting: Michigan State-Connecticut Preview
by Robert Ferringo - 03/30/2009
If might equals right then Michigan State and Connecticut have been two of the most "right" college basketball teams in the country this year.
The No. 2 Spartans, winners of the Midwest Region, will take on the No. 1 Huskies, victors of the West Region, at 6 p.m., on Saturday, April 4, in the first national semifinal. This game will be played at Ford Field in Detroit and the Huskies have been instilled as a four-point favorite. The total sits at 133.5.
Michigan State and Connecticut have advanced to the Final Four on the muscular backs of their dominating frontcourts. These are two rough, rugged teams and they both rely on smothering defense and powerful rebounders to overwhelm their opponents. And the philosophy of this game is simple: the team whose forwards and center are able to exact their physical will on the interior is going to advance.
The Spartans advanced to the Final Four on the strength of their upset win over Louisville, the Big East regular season and conference tournament champions. However, I have always felt that Connecticut was the best team that The Beast had to offer this season. And while Michigan State was able to win a tempo game against the Cardinals - controlling the ball and clock, and limiting Louisville's transition game - they are facing a Connecticut squad that doesn't have such an obvious weakness.
In fact, the Huskies actually did the same thing to Louisville in their only meeting this year, winning 68-51 in Freedom Hall back in early February.
If you don't know by now that Connecticut relies on center Hasheem Thabeet and forward Jeff Adrien on the block then you need to stop reading this and go watch "Baseball Tonight". But what you might not know is that the keys to the Huskies advancing to their third national championship game in the last decade might rest in the hand of swingman Stanley Robinson. Robinson is a 6-9 swing forward that can handle, pass, and get to the rack. He has scored in double digits in his last five games (17.4 points per game) and is someone that Michigan State cannot matchup with.
Also, freshman Kemba Walker - who I predicted last week in my Sweet 16 preview would have a breakout weekend - is coming on strong and gaining confidence. However, we'll see how the fearless freshman performs in the bright lights of the Final Four. A.J. Price is the Money Man for the Huskies, but Connecticut will need Walker to help relieve the pressure Price will most assuredly face from the Spartans.
Michigan State really relies on a consortium of players to produce their points. Guard Kalin Lucas is the leading scorer and clear go-to guy for Sparty. But he is definitely not the type of guy that's going to single-handedly take over a game with his skill. And besides slow-footed, but skilled, center Goran Suton the Spartans don't have anyone else that averages more than 10 points per game. Instead, they have seven total players that average between 5.2 and 14.6 points, four players that make 39 percent of more of their three-pointers, and four players that shoot 71 percent or better from the free throw line. Their strength is in their balance.
The Spartans have had success this year in nonconference games against teams that were equally strong on the interior. They beat Kansas' size twice this season and the Spartans managed to win as an underdog on the road against Texas. They also held down Louisville and USC in the NCAA Tournament, and each of them had at least one NBA-level player in the post.
Connecticut really did not do that much in the nonconference that is comparable to Michigan State (although the Big East was a far superior conference to the Big Ten this year). They beat Miami and Wisconsin by double digits, as well as a 12-point win against a Purdue team that compares favorably to Michigan State and a 26-point win over Texas A&M and its frontcourt. Also, Connecticut's victory over red-hot Missouri has to be considered one of its two best wins of the year.
Finally, Michigan State will have a tremendous advantage of playing in front of a pro-Spartans crowd because Ford Field is just a short drive away from East Lansing. Particularly for underdogs, having the crowd on your side is not only gives a huge lift in confidence but, as I've often noted, it also seems to draw a more favorable reaction from the officials toward the Mighty Mite. However, MSU has played just once at Ford Field this year: and they were beaten by about 100 by North Carolina.
As I handicap this game I don't truly see a strong edge on either side. Connecticut is a better team from a better conference. However, they aren't a much better team. Michigan State plays exceptional man-to-man defense and their overall approach and demeanor is actually very similar to what Pittsburgh - the team that dealt Connecticut two of its four losses this season - does on the court. Michigan State is just solid, steady, and well coached. They execute, they can shoot just enough, and they have experience in close games.
Connecticut has a little more talent and has been more dominant this season. And when it comes down to it I simply don't see this Michigan State team as a serious national title contender. They play good basketball, but the overall skill and ability of the NBA-ready guys that the Huskies trot out there could trump that. It's not as if the Huskies are some flaky run-and-gun team. Connecticut relies on defense, rebounding and grinding teams down through physicality and intimidation - just like Michigan State.
In the end, the Huskies get the nod from me for the win and against the spread they might be right. But this number is only going to move to give more points to the Spartans as the week goes on. And in what should be a tight, lower-scoring game the points could hold up and the Spartans might be right.