- The Washington Times - Monday, April 6, 2009

DETROIT | If it seems like North Carolina and Michigan State have been here before, well, it’s because indeed they have earlier this season.

Regardless of personnel issues, regardless of crowd size, regardless of anything, it was a bludgeoning.

It - a 98-63 Tar Heels victory Dec. 3 - was also more than four months ago, an eternity in the evolution of the teams set to meet Monday night at Ford Field for the NCAA tournament championship.

“At this point, there’s only two teams left playing,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said. “All that other stuff is hogwash.”

Historically, he’s correct. There were seven previous title game rematches in the last 30 years, and in five of them the team that won the regular-season meeting lost with much more at stake. In two of those instances (Villanova in 1985 and Kansas in 1988), a team that was swept in the regular season paid back a conference opponent in the final.

The Tar Heels (33-4), though, have an extra facet factoring into their meeting with the Spartans (31-6). No eventual national champion has lost a regular-season game by more than 27 points and eventually rallied to win a championship. In the last 16 years, the only champion with a 20-point loss on its ledger was Maryland in 2002.

Yet Michigan State might be the mold-buster, in part because of the injuries it dealt with early in the season. Freshman Delvon Roe wasn’t fully recovered from August knee surgery and was just beginning to establish himself as a starter.

Fifth-year big man Goran Suton, meanwhile, was in the middle of a six-game stretch on the bench with a knee injury. He didn’t even make the trip from East Lansing to see his teammates get run off the floor in front of a crowd that filled about a third of the stadium.

“Back then, G, he wasn’t even in the building,” forward Raymar Morgan said. “Delvon was still facing some injuries. We just had a lot of ups and downs. A lot of guys weren’t playing as much and things like that. I think we’re just a more experienced team. We faced a lot of different teams now, different styles of play. I think we’re just better.”

If the Spartans are improved - and thanks to a full complement of players and an uncanny ability to flourish in several tempos, they are - so too are the Tar Heels.

They are uncommonly balanced, with five players averaging double figures in what amounts to a powerful harbinger. Other recent teams that shared the trait were Duke in 2001, North Carolina in 2005 and Florida in 2006 and 2007 - all national champions.

The backcourt of Wayne Ellington, Danny Green and Ty Lawson got better as the season unfolded, and forward Tyler Hansbrough remained his steady, sturdy self. Meanwhile, Deon Thompson and Ed Davis emerged as more reliable complements in the paint.

Therein lies the issue facing the Spartans in Round 2: Their opponent had more than a little to do with the initial pummeling incurred in that fretful ACC/Big Ten Challenge beatdown.

“If we had everybody perfect, the way they played that night, instead of winning by 35 they could have beat us by 20,” coach Tom Izzo said. “If we play good and they play good, we’re losing. I don’t look at that in the negative. They are the best team in the country and have earned that rank probably over a year and a half. But we found a way to have some teams play not as good against us.”

Such is the task facing Michigan State this time around. It can take some solace in a recent title game turnaround - Connecticut reversed a 16-point loss to Georgia Tech early in the 2003-04 regular season and turned it into an eight-point title game victory.

Williams is intimately familiar with another rematch - the 1981 Indiana-North Carolina final he coached in while an assistant under Dean Smith. The Tar Heels won in the regular season, lost the rematch and had to wait another year to earn Smith his elusive first title.

With such results, both recent and further flung, it was unsurprising the Tar Heels placed little value in their earlier rout.

“We caught them at a time where they weren’t fresh at all,” Ellington said. “They had some injuries. So they’re a totally different team.”

But different enough to reverse such a lopsided result?

“We’ve just got to play good and have them play a little less than good,” Izzo said. “That’s how we hope to beat them. I’m sure we talked about it once and everybody wants revenge. That’s normal. But I think these guys have enough respect for them but yet don’t fear them because of what happened then.”

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