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A Brief History of UNC-Michigan State

Back in April Carolina played Michigan State in a game which, if I recall, had a bit of significance. In preparation for that game, I ran down some of my favorite UNC-MSU matchups, which I'll repeat here:

The game last fall isn't the only reason UNC fans are looking forward to playing Michigan State. The Tar Heels are a respectable 8-3 against the Spartans and 4-0 in the NCAA tournament; both the 1957 and 2005 championship teams beat MSU in the Final Four, while in 1998 and 2007 Carolina won in the Elite Eight. (Both Elite Eight games, Spartan fans would probably point out, were played in the state of North Carolina.)

UNC has been ranked every time the two teams have met, with Michigan State sharing that distinction in all but two of those matches. This will be the fourth time both teams are in the Top Ten, MSU has a 3-1 advantage when that happens. There are, of course, a few games that stand out, for historic and personal reasons:

March 22nd, 1957: North Carolina 74, Michigan State 70 (3OT) In any other year, with any other Carolina team, this would be the epic game of the tournament. The one folks would be talking about decades later, the pinnacle of Frank McGuire's coaching career at UNC. Instead, it's an afterthought, mentioned only as a prelude to the real game of that season, the triple-overtime win over Kansas and Wilt Chamberlain that got UNC the title and capped off a perfect season. MSU is pretty much forgotten in all of that.

The News and Observer republished their article from that day a few years back, and it's a familar story. UNC was the favorite, undefeated and top-ranked, but came out sluggishly against the 11th-ranked Spartans. Michigan State had it sealed with eleven seconds remaining in the first overtime, a two point lead, and center John Green shooting free throws; Green missed, Pete Brennan got the rebound and drove the length of the court to tie it at the buzzer. By the third overtime, Lennie Rosenbluth (11 for 42 from the field) was one of the few Carolina stars who hadn't fouled out, and he took over and sent the Heels on to face Kansas and history.

Michigan State would get their revenge two years later when John Green was a senior, defeating the Heels in the Dixie Classic by 17.

December 1st, 1999: Michigan State 86, North Carolina 76 I was at this game, one of the few I could attend that season because of work, so it always stands out to me as the game that announced the beginning of UNC's decline. The Heels had suffered in the previous season, Guthridge's second and the first without Antawn Jamison and Vince Carter; they'd gone a respectable 24-10 (10-6 in the ACC) but lost three games to Duke and taken an early exit from the tournament thanks to Weber State. Yes, Weber State.

The 1999-2000 team was supposed to correct that, however, with the addition of Joseph Forte to a core team of Ed Cota, Brendan Haywood, Jason Capel, and Kris Lang. And they were beginning to live up to that promise, winning their first three games on the way to collecting the Maui Invitational title. And then came Michigan State, ranked 8th to the UNC's 2nd, one of the two marquee events of the inaugural Big Ten-ACC challenge. Duke had knocked this team out of the Final Four last year, and we could at least do as well as Duke, right?

Not by a long shot. The Heels were dominated from the opening tip, and at one point were behind by a score of 65-48. It was the Heels first non-conference home loss in 55 games, their first home opener loss since 1928, and worst of all, it was done with Mateen Cleaves cheering from the end of the bench, out with a stress fracture. The bloom was off the rose for this Carolina team, which went on to lose 14 games (the most since 1952) before taking an eight seed to the Final Four, The Heels were dispatched by Florida, Guthridge retired with two Final Fours in three years, and Matt Doherty came in to turn the program around.

His first loss, by the way, was also to Michigan State in the following year's challenge.

April 2nd, 2005: North Carolina 87, Michigan State 71 This game, of course, everyone remembers. UNC, back in the Final Four under Roy Williams, shaking off ghosts of Final Fours past and a horrible first half that had them down five, turned the game over to Sean May and Jawad Williams, who combined for 42 points, while the Heels managed 51 rebounds on the way to a decisive second half win. And then the fans set Franklin Street on fire, but that's cool.

December 3rd, 2008: North Carolina 98, Michigan State 63 Ah, the relevant game. In the preview I did for another site, I was pretty dismissive of the Spartans, but that was mostly because of a tight deadline and the fact that it made a good joke. Nobody expects another 35 point win. MSU was missing Goran Suton, as you've undoubtedly heard a thousand times in the last twelve hours, and were starting one freshman playing his sixth game and a sophomore not long removed from his first season as well. This team has seasoned a lot since the season started with embarassing losses to two ACC teams. (Don't forget Maryland, in sad shape themselves this fall, beat a Suton-less Spartan team by 18.) The game was ugly, in no small part because UNC completely dictated the tempo, Lawson controlled the game in ways rarely seen before the tournament run (Check out that line: 17 points on 6 for 11 shooting, eight assists and seven steals. Just sick.) and Hansbrough could have his way on the inside, easily getting a double-double in 27 minutes of play.

Now, Michigan State's perimeter pressure has greatly improved, making life difficult for UNC's three point shooters, although not enough to completely hamstring Lawson. They can push the tempo, as they showed with UConn, but probably won't try to against UNC, hoping for a slow grinding game, and they've mastered the art of rebounding against a taller opponent, to the point of being better at offensive rebounding than the Heels. They won't shoot many threes, but as last night proved, Kalin Lucas can get hot when the mood strikes. Expect a closer game, but not one in which the Heels are actually stopped; UNC should win by twelve.

UNC went on to win by more than twelve, and there as much rejoicing. This game looks to be a bit more difficult for the Heels, as the Spartans return practically everyone short of Goran Suton, while Carolina is breaking in a whole new team. The styes of play actually work out for North Carolina, but they'll need to cut back on the turnovers and keep the pace brisk to pull off the upset.