Posted December 05, 2013

A No. 1 bites the dust: Tar Heels defeat top-ranked Spartans in East Lansing

ACC, Big Ten, Michigan State Spartans, NCAA, North Carolina, Roy Williams, Tom Izzo
Marcus Paige and North Carolina stifled top-ranked Michigan State for a big win the ACC/Big Ten Challenge

Marcus Paige and North Carolina stifled top-ranked Michigan State for a big win the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

North Carolina basketball continues to confound.

After losing to Belmont at home, beating Louisville by nine on a neutral court and following that up with a loss at UAB, the Tar Heels entered Wednesday night’s matchup with Michigan State in East Lansing as underdogs that no one could understand. And after soundly defeating the No. 1 Spartans by 14 – a game in which No. 1 never led – UNC remains a mystery.

Certainly, the Spartans didn’t do themselves any favors. They ended the first half on an 18-6 run but couldn’t capitalize to start the second. They stayed steadily behind the Tar Heels for the first five minutes or so and even tied the game again at 49-49 with 12:09 left on Keith Appling’s 3-pointer. Brice Johnson stepped up for UNC and hit baskets on back-to-back possessions and gave his team a four-point cushion, and Michigan State didn’t get closer again. The Tar Heels won the game 79-65.

The Spartans struggled with injuries and illnesses: forward Matt Costello was suffering from the flu and questionable coming into the game, but he had six points and a spark off the bench. The real scare of the game came late in the first half as Appling went for a block and came down hard on his hip. He returned to score 10 points in the second half. Garry Harris was in an out with his aggravated ankle, and Adreian Payne struggled with cramps and was on and off the bench often in the second half.

But the injuries don’t explain the Spartans’ loss. The Tar Heels were the more physical, the more aggressive – and, to put it plainly – the better team on the court. They out-rebounded Michigan State (40-35), got more points off the bench (31-17) and scored from the paint, seemingly at will. Johnson finished 6-of-11 for 14 points and 290-pounder Kennedy Meeks added 15 points and seven rebounds. Neither of those players is a sure-fire future NBA pick like Payne is, but even when Payne was healthy, he was being outplayed in the paint.

The front court’s fortitude helped to ease the pressure on guard Marcus Paige. He has been North Carolina’s go-to scorer in the continued absence of P.J. Hairston, but he struggled against the stifling defense of Harris, shooting only 4-of-14 from the floor.

The outcome ended a 35-game home winning streak over unranked opponents for the Spartans. But that’s misleading. The Tar Heels aren’t unranked because they’re untalented; they’re unranked because they’re inconsistent. The Tar Heels team that played tonight is certainly in the top 10. The Tar Heels team that lost to UAB isn’t in the top 25.

For North Carolina fans, there is room for comfort and concern. If Hairston and Leslie McDonald return to the lineup, the Tar Heels could be one of the deeper teams in the country, but there is no timetable for a return.

For now, it’s up to Roy Williams to figure out how to get his Heels to play like every game is against a top-5 team.

8 comments
turnergil1
turnergil1

I read a lot of the sports reports today and nobody appears to have an answer for the losses and upsets.I think it is simply the free throws.Against Belmont 45.8%; Against UAB 36.4%; Against Louisville 68.4%; Against Michigan State 70.4%.


Richard--Ramirez
Richard--Ramirez

Sparty overrated as per usual, the crook Izzo exposed as a terrible coach once again.

dudedadesq
dudedadesq

Nice writing...how about including the final score somewhere in the article, not just the margin of victory? 

itsthinking
itsthinking

Well at least this year they earned their way to an ap ranking.  Very Very strong win for UNC.

WHO*IS*ESPN
WHO*IS*ESPN

wonder if dickie v will stop his love affair with MSU now.......and then the media will rank Duke #1 too

Wildcats1970
Wildcats1970

@Richard--Ramirez


Yeah, four national coach of the year awards, seven B1G titles, six final fours and a national championship. Izzo sure is a terrible coach. 

Wildcats1970
Wildcats1970

@WHO*IS*ESPN


"Duke" Vitale having a love affair with the B1G? That'd be a first. Nobody has been a bigger shill for Coach K over the years.