The last time the Michigan State Spartans and the Connecticut Huskies faced off on the hardwood, it was on an airbase in Ramstein, Germany 4,151 miles away from the Spartan’s home in East Lansing.
In that game, the Huskies took the game, 66-62, in each team’s respective season opener.
But now, following a nail-biting 61-59 victory over the No. 1 seed Virginia Cavaliers, the No. 4 seed Michigan State Spartans (29-8, 12-6 Big Ten) will take on the No. 7 seed Connecticut Huskies (29-8, 12-6 AAC) with a little bit more on the line: a Final Four.
Tip-off at Madison Square Garden in New York is scheduled for 2:20 pm ET and will be televised on CBS.
Backcourt Advantage: Push
For UConn, it all starts with their All-American senior point guard Shabazz Napier. Napier has had a fantastic season for the Huskies, one in which he has averaged 17.9 points, 5.9 rebounds, 4.9 assists, and 1.8 steals, all team-highs.
Napier, who already has a National Championship run under his belt from his freshman year and a 25 point performance in a victory over the Spartans last year, has upped his game even more this postseason, where he’s averaged 22.6 points, 6 rebounds, 4.6 assists, and 2.3 steals per game in his team’s first three tournament games.
This is not to say that Napier has had to do it all completely on his own though. Aiding him in the backcourt will be both junior Ryan Boatright (12.1 ppg, 3.4 apg), and German swing man sharpshooter Niels Giffey (8.4 ppg).
Countering Napier and co. in the backcourt, though, will be arguably one of the nation’s best defensive back courts in both senior Keith Appling and sophomore Gary Harris. Like Napier, only for Harris it’s due to all the injuries the Spartans have been forced to endure this season, he has had to, at times, put his team on back this season, and he has certainly shown the ability to do that, where he has averaged 16.6 ppg, 4.1 rpg, and 1.9 spg.
However as for Appling, his averages of 11.4 points, and 4.5 assists per game are certainly a shade below what he was averaging before suffering a wrist injury mid-season, as he has been in a funk over the course of the last two months.
Fortunately for Michigan State though, junior guard Travis Trice has played fantastic throughout stretches in relief of Appling this season, and is by far the most improved Spartan, averaging 7.5 points and 2.3 assists in just 22 minutes of action a game.
At the end of the day, it certainly is a match up loaded with backcourt talent, and whoever has the advantage in this category may ultimately come out on top.
Frontcourt Advantage: Michigan State
This looks to be the facet of the game that should swing in Michigan State’s favor. With the two-headed monster of Adreian Payne (16.6 ppg, 7.2 rpg) and Branden Dawson (11.4 ppg, 8.5 rpg) that has emerged this post season, the Spartans should be looking to go inside to those two early and often.
Both Payne and Dawson prove to be match up issues for opposing teams time-and-time again. Payne in a sense that he’s nearly 7 feet tall but can hit jump shots from all over the court and Dawson in the sense that he is freakishly athletic on the inside.
As for the Huskies, much of the damage done on the inside is taken care of by either junior DeAndre Daniels (13.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg) or 7-foot freshman big man Amida Brimah (4.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 2.4 bpg). Other than that, they’re a team similar to that of maybe the Michigan Wolverines, in that they like to play a lot of guys that can knock down the three.
However, with the way both Dawson and Payne have looked and worked together so far in this post season, especially the way that Dawson has changed the makeup and look of this Michigan State team since returning from his broken hand injury, look for Michigan State to come out on top in this area of the floor.
Coaching Advantage: Michigan State
While UConn coach Kevin Ollie has done a fantastic job in his first two seasons since taking over for the legendary Jim Calhoun, and does own a victory over Tom Izzo in the two coach’s only previous meeting, it’s hard to bet against an Izzo MSU Basketball team in March.
Izzo has led his team’s to six Final Fours over the course of his 19-year career at Michigan State, and it’s certainly a well known fact by now that every four year player under Izzo during that time span has played in a Final Four.
But with time running out for seniors Keith Appling and Adreian Payne, they now stand just one victory away from continuing Izzo’s illustrious streak.
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