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For the second time in eight days, the Tar Heels (8-0) took a legitimate Final Four contender to the woodshed. Both Notre Dame and Michigan State (4-2) will challenge for their respective conference titles, but against North Carolina, they looked like mid-major programs.
Michigan State posted a better shooting percentage in the first half than the Tar Heels – 51.6 to 51.3 – but still found itself down, 53-39. North Carolina then quickly erased any thoughts of a comeback by flexing its defensive muscle and exploding out of the break with a 14-2 spurt to build a 67-41 margin, and the rout was on.
But if you're not one to put much faith into the opinions of your garden variety sportswriters, then you should at least be willing to listen to the words of a decorated head coach that owns a national championship and four Final Four appearances.
"I think it's potentially the best team we've played against over the years," Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo told reporters during his postgame press conference. "You didn't see our real team tonight, but our real team might have lost by 20. They're definitely one of the best teams I've seen in my 25 years at Michigan State."
Izzo needed a Tom Herzog layup with nine seconds left to avoid the most-lopsided defeat of his tenure in East Lansing. Iowa beat Michigan State by 36 during the head coach's first season in 1996.
The magnitude of this victory was obvious as soon as Roy Williams stepped to the podium to address the media. The UNC head coach spent his opening statement coming up with excuses for his opponent – tired legs from a weekend of travel and games, injuries, lack of bodies.
Those are the type of comments we've grown to expect from Williams after wins over inferior opponents such as Chaminade and UNC Asheville – not a team that boasts a Big Ten-best 11 straight NCAA Tournament appearances.
"We feel very lucky, and we were lucky to get the schedule like this," Williams said. "We played Sunday, but it was at home. They played Friday, Saturday and Sunday and then come and play like this, and they've got some guys banged up to begin with."
Never mind that this was North Carolina's seventh game in 15 days, four of which occurred on the West Coast or beyond, or that seven of the 13 Tar Heels on scholarship have battled some form of injury during the early months of the season.
North Carolina obliterated the Spartans despite Deon Thompson (10 points, seven rebounds) and Danny Green (six points, five rebounds) having off-games offensively on Wednesday. Tyler Hansbrough led all scorers with 25 points and 11 rebounds, and Ty Lawson added another dazzling stat line of his own – 17 points, eight assists, seven steals and zero turnovers.
In his last five outings, the junior point guard has dished out 38 assists against just three turnovers.
But the offensive firepower that UNC displayed against Michigan State – 47.9 percent shooting on 34-of-71 field goal attempts – is nothing new to observers, especially not during Williams' tenure. The Tar Heels have always been able to outscore most programs that they encounter, even if those teams drain a high percentage of their shots.
What's been missing is the choking presence of intense defensive pressure – until now. For the fourth time in five games, the Tar Heels held its opponent to under 30 percent shooting for a half. Michigan State may have connected on 51.3 percent of its field goal attempts in the first half, but the Spartans made only seven of their 35 shots when it mattered down the stretch. North Carolina scored 27 points off 22 MSU turnovers, thanks in part to 15 steals.
It's difficult to outscore the Tar Heels – only three teams accomplished that feat in 39 tries in 2007-08 – but shooting below 40 percent, as their opponents have consistently done through eight games this season, makes it darn near impossible.
"Our defense is so much better than last year, so we're going to keep trying to improve on it and that will make us better as a team," Lawson said.
The season has just begun, but North Carolina's performance on Wednesday night made one thing perfectly clear – the Tar Heels winning the national championship would not be as big of a story as somebody knocking them off their perch atop the college basketball world.