Sports

NCAA Tournament men's title game, 9 pm (CBS)

DETROIT — If defeating Connecticut in the Final Four to advance to Monday night's championship game against North Carolina was the high point, Michigan State's 98-63 regular-season loss to the Tar Heels was the low.

And in the late evening after the Spartans' best victory of the season, the team rewound to watch a bit of their worst loss together.

Travis Walton could get through only a half. But he needed to see a little more of what players have called "an embarrassment" and popped in the video again.

"I didn't watch the whole game because the whole game was ugly," he said. "But I watched the first half. I watched it more for letting it go to rest.

"Sometimes you've got to lay it behind you to move forward. You have to look it in the eye and see what happened and then look forward to the next day."

That ACC/Big Ten Challenge game Dec. 3 at Ford Field presented hardly any challenge for the Tar Heels, who held Michigan State to 20 percent second-half shooting.

On that night, North Carolina looked championship-bound. Michigan State looked as if its hands and feet had been bound.

Four months later, more has changed for Michigan State than for North Carolina, which faces a rematch with the Spartans for the title at the same arena.

MSU is such a different team that Coach Tom Izzo considers it useless to analyze the Carolina loss as part of practice for the championship.

The Spartans didn't recall ever taking time to study the December game tape until Saturday night. But so much was different then. Goran Suton missed the game for an MRI on his knee. Freshman Delvon Roe was slowly coming back from microfracture surgery. And the Spartans' legs were limp, playing their fourth game in seven days.

Forget playing for the national title: It was tough to picture the Spartans doing anything but crumbling.

"Even though we had some ups and downs, we still believed we were a great team, even if nobody else believed in us," Walton said.

The Spartans then ripped off 11 straight victories and won the Big Ten title by four games, even with illness sapping the strength and skill of starting forward Raymar Morgan.

While the Spartans are a far healthier and more cohesive team, thriving on their defense and depth and the point guard play of Kalin Lucas, the loss to North Carolina still helped define their season. Sophomores Durrell Summers and Lucas hatched a plan. They talked about their cravings.

"We just discussed how hungry we were to get to our hometown and play in a Final Four and for a national title," Summers said. "We decided we would do whatever it takes, extra shots late at night, watching extra film, listening to the coaches more."

The Spartans will be the underdogs again, as they were when they were ranked 13th in December facing No. 1 North Carolina. As a No. 2 seed, Michigan State is trying to knock off its third straight top-seeded opponent.

The Tar Heels say they're giving no credence to the earlier whipping they delivered.

"They're not exactly Charlie's Doughnuts Team," North Carolina Coach Roy Williams said. "They're pretty good. To me, they've gotten healthy. They're playing their best basketball at the end of the year."

As much as it would seem a handy motivational tool, Izzo said he doesn't use the December blowout to inspire his team.

That's because he wants the Spartans to take North Carolina as seriously as any team playing for a national championship should.

Even if the Spartans had been healthy in December, he said, the Tar Heels outmatched them and would have won by 20 points instead of 35.

So, by that rationale, Michigan State needs the Tar Heels to play as badly this time — or nearly so — as the Spartans did in December.

"If we play good and they play good, we're losing," Izzo said. "They are the best team in the country and have been that. But we found a way to have some teams not play as good against us. We've just got to play good and have them play a little less than good. That's how we hope to beat them."

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader

  Comments