Two of NCAA basketball’s best programs square off Sunday as Michigan State and Connecticut meet in Elite Eight action at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The winner advances to the Final Four next weekend in Dallas, TX. The Spartans are a No. 4 seed and the Huskies a No. 7 seed in the East Region.
The two programs had up and down seasons but have been among the elite of NCAA basketball the past two decades. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo will achieve a rare feat with a victory on Sunday as every senior class he has ever coached at Michigan State will have made at least one trip to the Final Four. UConn coach Kevin Ollie is in his second season after taking over for legendary Husky coach Jim Calhoun and would be making his first trip to the Final Four as a head coach.
This game will likely be defensive oriented as UConn did not rank in the top 140 of any major offensive statistical category and Michigan State is usually one of the toughest defensive teams in the country. The focus of that defense Sunday will be UConn guard Shabazz Napier, one of the most valuable players in the NCAA Tournament. The senior guard led the Huskies in scoring, rebounding and assists with 17.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg and 4.9 apg this season and shot nearly 40 percent from beyond the three-point line.
Napier was a one man wrecking crew early on against Iowa State Friday night as he made his first four three pointers and helped the Huskies get to an early lead. As the game wore on though junior forward DeAndre Daniels took over, finishing with 27 points and ten rebounds. Ollie would love to have similar performances from his two best players again Sunday against the Spartans.
The only problem with that is UConn will be playing a team with an entirely different defensive look than Iowa State. Michigan State is significantly better on the defensive end than the Cyclones and Izzo will make sure early on that Napier and Daniels feel the pressure of a much more physical team Sunday.
The Huskies have been playing tough defense as well. UConn locked down Iowa State early Friday night, holding them to under 30 percent shooting in the first half and will have to do so again to stand a chance against possibly the hottest team in the NCAA Tournament at the moment.
Michigan State will provide a tougher challenge in the paint to UConn than any team they have faced this season. The Spartans front court is led by junior forward Branden Dawson and senior forward Adreian Payne, both of whom have played their best basketball of the season in the NCAA tournament. Dawson is coming off of a 24 point and ten rebound performance against Virginia Friday while Payne scored 41 in the tournament opener against Delaware. Dawson has been the Spartans best player lately but Payne may provide the most difficult matchup for UConn given his 6’9 frame and superior athletic ability.
Connecticut and Michigan State are both on a great run in this NCAA Tournament but it will be the Spartans cutting the nets at Madison Square Garden Sunday. Michigan State wins 62-58.
Commentary by Mick Varner