DETROIT — Instead of looking forward to the biggest game of his career, Michigan State senior guard Travis Walton sat alone in his room Saturday night looking back on one of the worst:
A tape of the Dec. 3 meeting against then-No. 1 North Carolina.
"I didn't watch the whole game, but I watched the first half," he said Sunday afternoon. "We didn't do a lot of things right."
The Tar Heels embarrassed the Spartans that day at Ford Field 98-63, their largest margin of defeat since Iowa beat them by 36 in February 1996, Tom Izzo's first season as coach.
Fast forward four months and you find those same Spartans and Tar Heels in the same building tonight in a game with a far greater implication: the NCAA championship.
"The bottom line is, I personally don't think that that game will have much, if anything, to do with the game that we play" tonight, UNC coach Roy Williams said.
Why? Well, you don't need to study tape to realize that the Tar Heels (33-4) and Spartans (31-6) are far different than they were in December. Both are better.
"Early in the year, we were playing together, but I think we were lacking a little bit in defense," UNC junior guard Ty Lawson said. "Right now, we're playing real well in defense, rotating, helping each other out, we're talking. I feel like right now we are peaking at the right moment."
During the tournament, the Heels are allowing an average of 66.8 points on 38.2 percent shooting from the field, 25.9 percent from 3-point range. In their previous 32 games, they allowed 72.8 points on 41.5 percent shooting (35 percent on 3s).
"If we play good and they play good, we're losing," Izzo said. "That's the way I look at it. I mean, I don't look at that in the negative. They are the best team in the country … but we found a way to have some teams not play as good against us."
Much of that has to do with players getting healthier and being able to practice more. In that December loss, freshman forward Delvon Roe was recovering from microfracture knee surgery. Worse still was senior center Goran Suton, who wasn't even in the building at tipoff. During the morning shootaround, he told Izzo that his ailing left knee was so bad he couldn't jump, and he went home to rest for surgery.
"It was painful watching from back home and not being able to be with the rest of the guys," said Suton, who was the Midwest Region's most outstanding player and can be a difficult matchup with his blend of size (6-10, 245) and shooting touch. "I'm glad we get to play them again."
History lesson: In November 2003, Georgia Tech beat then-No. 1 UConn in the Preseason NIT 77-61. But Huskies star center Emeka Okafor was having back trouble and was ineffective. The teams met for the NCAA title and on that night, Okafor was healthy while Tech stars B.J. Elder (high ankle sprain) and Isma'il Muhammad (knee tendinitis) were trying to play through pain. UConn won 82-73.
"To me, the advantage (tonight) definitely goes to Michigan State," Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt said. "Not necessarily because they lost the game, but because they know they're a different team because of their health."
Don't forget that Michigan State has beaten No. 1 seeds in successive games, Louisville then Connecticut on Saturday.
"We're a more determined team," said junior forward Raymar Morgan, who showed against UConn that he's a game-changer (18 points, nine rebounds, five steals).
The Tar Heels, also a No. 1 seed, insist they see that and aren't overlooking a team they overwhelmed.
"We already know that they're a different-looking team," junior guard Wayne Ellington said. "We caught 'em at a time where they weren't fresh at all, they had some injuries."
But might the No. 2 seed Spartans also be looking for revenge? UConn players in 2004 watched a replay of the regular-season loss to Tech and, with their hotel room doors open, could be heard shouting to one another about what they did or didn't do on certain plays. A loss can focus you on details.
"I'm sure we talked about it once, and everybody wants revenge; that's normal," Izzo said. "I think these guys have enough respect for them, but yet don't fear them because of what happened then."
"For myself," added Walton, "I wanted to see what happened and look forward to improving the next game."
Brian Landman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3347.