Friday, April 3, 2009

It's go time

No Final Four team believes in destiny more than Michigan State

Issue date: 4/3/09

By Anthony Fenech
Staff Reporter

Three weeks ago, 65 college basketball teams set out with one dream, one goal and one destination - Detroit.

Now, all but four have been dismissed.

The remaining teams meet starting Saturday at Detroit's Ford Field, where college basketball's top event will take place.

Four teams, four dreams, four teams of destiny. The pressure is immense. The crowd: likely a record-setting 72,000-plus.

But none of the participants - Connecticut, North Carolina or Villanova - believe they are meant to be there more than Michigan State.

Now, only two wins away from the school's third national championship, the Spartans are nearing a special moment in Final Four history.

"But they would have to win this thing," said Detroit sports radio host Mike Valenti. "Whenever you look back at stuff, you see it and you say 'They were a team of destiny,' you know it worked.

"But while it's happening, it's harder to say it."

The Spartans and head coach Tom Izzo have eyed the chance to compete in their home state for years. Now, they have traveled arguably the toughest road, which included beating the No. 1 seed Louisville, to play this weekend in what has been dubbed "Southeast Lansing."

Standing in their way, however, are the Connecticut Huskies, led by 7-foot, 3-inch Hasheem Thabeet.

Consider UConn's path. Star player injured. Six-overtime losses. Allegations of recruiting violations in the middle of its tournament run. If injuries and a savage-hungry media weren't going to finish them, how could any team expect to?

"They have the most imposing presence inside with Thabeet," said Central Michigan men's basketball coach Ernie Zeigler. "They do a great job on defense of funneling into him and putting pressure on the ball."

Both the Spartans and Huskies are balanced, play defense and have good depth. Both teams don't have a shot-blocking, game-changing center that looks to put his stamp on the Final Four in much the way Hakeem Olajuwon and Patrick Ewing have in the past.

"He's an equalizer," Zeigler said. "That allows them to put more pressure on the ball and to not worry about beating them off the dribble."

Defense is both teams' strength going into Saturday's first national semifinal, beginning at 6:07 p.m.

"(Connecticut) hasn't faced a lot of teams that play defense the way Michigan State does," Valenti said.

In Saturday's second semifinal, scheduled for 8:47 p.m., North Carolina takes on Villanova in a game that could solidify Tyler Hansbrough's place as one of the greatest college basketball players of all time.

Hansbrough, a four-time All-American and the ACC's all-time leading scorer, came back for his senior season for one opportunity - to play for a national championship.

He will look to exploit Villanova's lack of height inside, putting more pressure on the guard play of the Wildcats.

"They might be small, but they're probably the quickest of the four teams left," Zeigler said. "They're not very physical, but they're a very tough team to play."

Zeigler said he thinks North Carolina will prevail against not only Villanova, but also the team it matches up with in the finals.

"I think Ty Lawson's presence is just such a huge presence that he'll put them over the top," he said.

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