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Nothing will be finer than Carolina… Trags Take 04.06.09 at 2:02 pm ET
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National Championship-Michigan State (31-6) vs. North Carolina (33-4), 9:18 p.m. ET, CBS-TV.

They didn’t play close to their best game on Saturday night and the North Carolina Tar Heels still dispatched of the Villanova Wildcats by 14 points.

The Michigan State Spartans are unquestionably the darlings of this tournament, if you can be with a 31-6 record and a No. 2 seed in the Midwest Region. They beat No. 1 Connecticut on Saturday and advance to the national title game just 90 miles from their campus in East Lansing. Their official web site proclaims: “One More. Wear White on Monday Night.”

One of the more overwhelming storylines of this Final Four is the boost that a national championship would give Detroit and the state of Michigan if the Spartans could prevail.

Roy Williams, the Heels coach, would have none of that talk on Sunday.

“You know if we’re playing against the City of Detroit and the State of Michigan, they out number us,” Williams said. “We don’t have as good a chance at that one. But the other thing is you guys have to understand, we left here (Saturday) night at 12:45. We went back, we had a nice little snack and some ice cream and the kids went to bed. I saw them this morning at 11:00 for 30 minutes. We haven’t exactly exhausted the state of the nation’s economy in the last 18 hours.

“So for us, we’re playing Michigan State. I do realize they have a cause. Well, we also have a cause. We want to win a national championship, period, the end. And if you would tell me that if Michigan State wins, it’s gonna satisfy the nation’s economy, then I’d say, Hell, let’s stay poor for a little while longer. I don’t think that’s gonna happen. So if all the workers of America come down and start guarding my butt on the bench, then I’ll start being concerned about it.”

Michigan State has certainly been outstanding guarding people and that’s the No. 1 reason they have gotten to this point. They completely took overall No. 1 seed Louisville out of its game, allowing just 52 points in the Midwest final. They never let Jeff Adrien and A.J. Price get into their game in the national semifinal on Saturday. Now, they are playing their third straight game against a No. 1 seed.

Can they do it again against Carolina? Here’s a vote for reality and against storybook finishes. Carolina simply has too much.

Here’s how North Carolina wins its fifth title tonight in Detroit.

1: Depth. When Ty Lawson picked up two quick fouls on Saturday against Villanova, the Heels didn’t panic. When Tyler Hansbrough picked up his third early in the second half, again no worries. The reason for the calm is the number of bodies Roy Williams has next to him on the bench that can come in, bodies that would be starters on most other Division I programs.

2. Ty Lawson. The bum toe of Lawson has not been a factor and the point guard has played his best basketball in the tournament.

3. Outside-in. As Carolina showed in the first half on Saturday, they have plenty of scorers who can fire from three-point range.

4. Tyler Hansbrough. The Carolina big man can match up with Goran Suton. That will be a fascinating matchup to watch.

5. Us against the world. Carolina knows full well what the atmosphere is likely to be. Playing in Cameron Indoor Stadium, in many ways, is harder than playing before 72,000 in dome stadium.

How they lineup:

Michigan State:

Morgan, Raymar…… f
Roe, Delvon……… f
Suton, Goran…….. c
Lucas, Kalin…….. g
Walton, Travis…… g

North Carolina:

Deon Thompson……. f
Tyler Hansbrough…. f
Lawson, Ty………. g
Danny Green……… g
Wayne Ellington….. g

How they got here:

No. 2 seed Michigan State won the Midwest Regional. Beat No. 15 Robert Morris, 77-62. Beat No. 11 USC. 74-69. Beat No. 3 Kansas 67-62. Beat No. 1 Louisville, 64-52. Beat No. 1 Connecticut

No. 1 seed North Carolina won the South Regional. Beat No. 16 Radford, 101-58. Beat No. 8 LSU, 84-70. Beat No. 4 Gonzaga, 98-77. Beat No. 2 Oklahoma, 72-60. Beat No. 3 Villanova, 83-69.

It certainly won’t be the 98-63 Carolina blowout in the same stadium back on Dec. 3 but Carolina can handle the pressure that the Spartans will throw at them.

Final take:

North Carolina 76, Michigan State 71

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UConn can and will… Trags Take 04.03.09 at 3:03 pm ET
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National semifinal-Michigan State (30-6) vs. Connecticut (31-4), 6:07 p.m. ET, CBS-TV.

For a team that is a No. 2 seed playing on its virtual home court, the Michigan State Spartans sure seem like a considerable underdog against Connecticut in Saturday’s first national semifinal at Ford Field in Detroit. There’s good reason.

Michigan State fans, coaches and players need to travel just 85 miles to get to its destination on Saturday evening. And when they get there, there will be a tremendously gifted and motivated team that awaits them.

Back on Feb. 1, when they lost at home to eventual NIT champ Penn State, it seemed a lot longer than 85 miles to Destination Detroit. But this team is coached by Tom Izzo and he never lets his team lose focus or confidence. And he didn’t this time either. They regrouped and, except for a loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten semifinals, the Spartans have been on a mission, winning 10 of their last 11 and playing their best basketball in the NCAAs, reaching the Final Four for the fifth time in 11 seasons.

Their opponent, the Connecticut Huskies haven’t been short on storylines. But certainly, thanks to some ace journalism from Yahoo!, it’s been the wrong kind. Coach Jim Calhoun is once again the lightning rod of a program that is back to the Final Four for the third time since 1999. The last two trips have resulted in titles.

The tournament for UConn began with their coach in a Philadelphia hospital and continued the next weekend with allegations of serious recruiting violations. But the Huskies aren’t playing like there’s another shoe to drop. They’ve taken care of business, playing like a family that has come together in the worst of times. Throw in the best talent this side of Chapel Hill and you have a practically unbeatable combination. Read the rest of this entry »

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Why Nova beats Carolina… Trags Take 04.02.09 at 9:07 pm ET
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National semifinal-Villanova (30-7) vs. North Carolina (32-4), 8:47 p.m. ET, CBS-TV.

It is generally assumed that the University of North Carolina, with names like Lawson, Hansbrough and Green, is the team with the most depth and the most talent in the NCAA tournament, with Connecticut a fairly close second. And it’s generally assumed Carolina is headed for another championship date, if not title, on Monday night in Detroit.

North Carolina has been, for the most part, very workmanlike in their four-game run through the tournament to this point. They have dispatched of Radford, LSU, Gonzaga and Oklahoma. Villanova is coming off one of the most epic battles in NCAA tournament history, edging Pittsburgh on a mad 60-foot dash to the basket by Scottie Reynolds.

These two teams have great tournament history.

Michael Jordan and company beat Villanova in the Elite Eight in 1982 when Carolina finally won a title for Dean Smith. Villanova returned the favor in 1985, when they beat the Heels in the Southeast title game, 56-44. And in 2005, a most dubious traveling call was made on Nova’s Allan Ray and Carolina held on for a 67-66 win in the Sweet 16 as Carolina won its first title under Roy Williams.

Here’s how Villanova evens that score on Saturday night in Detroit.

1: Man-to-man. Villanova has the athletic depth on its roster that not even the No. 2 seed Oklahoma Sooners could throw at the Heels. Scottie Reynolds can match up with Ty Lawson man-to-man, with Corey Fisher off the bench. Dante Cunningham can defend Tyler Hansbrough because Cunningham plays ‘long’ as scouts are fond of saying. Dwayne Anderson, Nova’s most underrated player, will likely get the assignment of dealing with Danny Green.

2. Senior Leadership. No team is getting more out of their seniors than Nova. Dwayne Anderson, Dante Cunningham and Shane Clark. They all played key roles in not folding under the pressure on Saturday, when the Cats trailed by four with under three minutes to go.

3. Coaching. Jay Wright has his team believing they can beat anyone in any circumstance.

4. Defense. Villanova is playing better defense than any team in the field right now. They’ll need it because Carolina is averaging 90 points a game in their four wins.

5. 1985 Karma. Otherwise known as the Rollie Massimino Reunion Tour. Massimino met with former Pistons coach Chuck Daly this week at the hospital that is treating Daly’s pancreatic cancer. Daly, who took Penn to the Final Four in 1979, drew up a play for Massimino to give to Jay Wright.

How they got here:

No. 3 seed Villanova won the East Regional. Beat No. 14 American, 80-69. Beat No. 6 UCLA. 89-69. Beat No. 2 Duke 77-54. Beat No. 1 Pittsburgh, 78-76.

No. 1 seed North Carolina won the South Regional. Beat No. 16 Radford, 101-58. Beat No. 8 LSU, 84-70. Beat No. 4 Gonzaga, 98-77. Beat No. 2 Oklahoma, 72-60.

This Villanova team isn’t the 1985 squad that pulled off the biggest upset in NCAA history by beating Memphis State and Georgetown in the final. It’s better and more talented. The 1985 team had Ed Pinckney, Dwayne McClain and Gary McLain, Harold Pressley and Harold Jensen, Wakefield’s Mark Plansky off the bench.

And with all due respect to Plansky, a classmate in Electrical Engineering ’88, this version of the Wildcats have about twice the number of scoring options and are playing even better defense. That 1985 squad had the advantage this one doesn’t-playing with no shot clock. And still, this team has found ways to shut down UCLA, Duke and Pitt in three straight games.

Final take:

Villanova 71, North Carolina 68

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Full disclosure 03.29.09 at 12:26 am ET
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BOSTON – Covering Saturday night’s East Regional final was the single toughest assignment of my professional career.

It’s one thing to grow up following a team and surrender those feelings once you turn professional reporter.

It’s another to cover the school you poured your heart and soul into for four years while watching one of the greatest sporting upsets in modern sports history as a freshman in person. Yes, I’m referring to Villanova over Georgetown on April 1, 1985 at Rupp Arena.

So it was Saturday night. I blogged away as Pittsburgh battled my alma mater, Villanova in a game where classic doesn’t seem to do it justice.

I got text messages from my peeps in my native Cincinnati, my peeps in New York, my peeps here in Boston, all of whom were pulling for me during a nerve-wracking second half. Thanks to you all for your concern for my mental health as I was typing furiously away across from the Pittsburgh bench. But I was also in front of the Villanova fan section. It was deafening all night.

I maintained professional composure until the last teardrop by Scottie Reynolds. And beyond. No cheering, no smiling, honest. At least on the outside. On the inside, I was a mess. I’ll admit that I clenched my fist when the ball went through the hoop but as soon as it did, I unclenched and got busy typing This Just In on WEEI.com.

Maddening indeed.

As NovaNation was going bonkers right behind me, all I could think of was the man sitting five seats to my right and one row back. Rollie Massimino had seen this all before. He smiled like the proud daddy he is. After all, when this reporter attended Villanova between 1985-88 Rollie was simply known as Daddy Mass, something Jay Wright referenced all weekend long.

Then I got to work again covering postgame. I’m glad I was at TD Banknorth Garden for the greatest game ever played in the building.

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The greatest college game ever… in Boston at 12:11 am ET
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With about 10 minutes remaining in the second half, during a timeout on the court, the video board at TD Banknorth Garden played a replay of Christian Laettner beating the UConn Huskies at the buzzer in the 1990 East Regional Final at the Meadowlands.

Talk about foreshadowing.

In what many observers were calling one of the five greatest college games of all time, Scottie Reynolds channeled another buzzer beater (Tyus Edney from 1995) to stun the Pittsburgh Panthers and send Villanova to the Final Four for the fourth time in school history and the first time since winning it all in 1985.

Reynolds took a pass from Dante Cunningham and drove some 65 feet winding and weaving his way through the Pittsburgh defense which was scrambling to get in position. They never could and when Reynolds raced past DeJuan Blair and then nudged into Gilbert Brown and float a runner over his head and into the basket with 0.5 seconds remaining, Villanova had a 78-76 lead.

But it wasn’t until Levance Fields’ desperation heave from 75 feet was off the mark that NovaNation could go into a Beantown frenzy. And they did. Villanova coach Jay Wright came over to hug Rollie Massimino and there were ‘I love yous’ and ‘I am so proud of yous’ all around as 2009 met 1985.

“It’s kind of eerie how this is playing out,” Wright said. “I hope to God history repeats itself (laughter), because I remember — my wife is here, my wife and I were down there as fans. I worked Rollie Massimino’s camp, I was there like a hanger on. I was part of the family. The thing with Rollie was if you worked his camp you might as well have been the top assistant, everybody was in the family. And my wife was a cheerleader there, she had just graduated.”

If Carolina beats Oklahoma on Sunday, then it will be Carolina and Nova in the Final Four, one round later than when the Cats beat the Heels in ’85 on their way to the title.

“And it’s — that was kind of the greatest year in the Big East history, and we’ve had discussions whether that year was better than this year, it’s a whole another topic. But that was similar. Villanova was a great team, but St. John’s and Syracuse and Georgetown were the teams that year. Villanova kind of sneaks in. And then it’s all happening the same. I’m not a superstitious person or anything, I don’t care. I’m worried about the next game. But if history repeats itself, I’ll take it (laughter).”

There were so many moments to remember. Almost too many to digest.

Down four and with Pittsburgh bringing the ball up, Dwayne Anderson stole the ball at midcourt and went into for a layup with 2:45 remaining. Reynolds may have had the play of the game but Anderson’s steal and layup was the turning point of the final three minutes.

Corey Fisher hit a layup to give Villanova the lead. Then, down one again, Anderson hit a three for Villanova, 71-69. Then two free throws by Fisher, 73-69 with 46 seconds left. Then, with Villanova up, 76-72, with 20 seconds remaining, Blair hits a layup. Then Reggie Redding heaves a ball the length of the court and the turnover leads to Levance Fields getting fouled.

Two free throws by Fields and 76-76. And then Scottie Reynolds turned into Tyus Edney. And Villanova is off to Detroit.

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A classic in the making 03.28.09 at 8:40 pm ET
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Jermaine Dixon was taken to the locker room within the first minute of the second half as two Villanova players came down on his legs scrambling for a loose ball. Dixon lay on the floor for a couple of minutes as was treated by Pittsburgh training staff. He returned to the bench with 15 minutes remaining but did not re-enter the game.

Levance Fields hit an early three in the first two minutes of the second half.

It’s been a busy night for legendary college hoops writer Dick ‘Hoops’ Weiss. In the first half, he was bowled over by a Pittsburgh player who spill his drink. Then Sam Young early in the second half ran into press row and guess who had a first-hand look? Young split Weiss and New York Post scribe Lenn Robbins.

That play caused Weiss to move to the second row and led to the most spectacular play of the game. The ball was saved in bounds and wound up at Villanova’s end. Corey Fisher collected it on the ground and fed Scottie Reynolds. Reynolds pump-faked and made a reverse lay-up high off the glass.

Dante Cunningham picked up his third foul with 14:10 remaining in the second half.

The two teams are trading blows in what is turning into a classic Big East backyard brawl.

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Pittsburgh 34, Villanova 32 Halftime at 8:06 pm ET
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After trailing for most of the first half, two free throws by Sam Young with 2.6 seconds remaining gave Pittsburgh a two-point lead at halftime in the East Regional final.

The play that led to the two free throws was symbolic of the topsy-turvy play between the two Big East powers.

Sam Young pump-faked Nova’s Dwayne Anderson into the air and then slipped underneath him, causing Anderson to do a spectacular, if not dangerous flip onto the hardwood. Anderson got up none the worse for wear.

Pittsburgh ended the first half on a 26-14 run to take the lead at the break.

Villanova is shooting 34 percent (11-for-32) while Pittsburgh has warmed up to 42 percent at 10-for-24.

Both teams have players with foul issues. Pittsburgh’s DeJuan Blair picked up an ill-advised second foul when he came out to screen Scottie Reynolds with under two minutes remaining. Dante Cunningham and Shane Clark both have two fouls for Villanova.

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