DETROIT - When it comes to discussing the first time his Michigan State Spartans faced North Carolina at Ford Field this season, State coach Tom Izzo would prefer to claim amnesia.

"I've tried to forget that whole week," said Izzo of that 98-63 defeat on Dec. 3. "In fact, if you ask me, 2008 never happened."

But it did happen. And to keep it from happening again in tonight's NCAA title game, Izzo admits, "We've got to play good and have them play a little less than good."

That scenario has unfolded before in the national championship game. Swept by Big East brother and defending national champ Georgetown during the 1985 regular-season, Villanova shot 70 percent against the Hoyas to win that year's crown. Three years later, Danny Manning and his Miracles shocked Oklahoma in the 1988 final after Kansas had been shut out against the Sooners in the regular-season.

And in a classic regular-season game during the 1992-'93 campaign, North Carolina lost by one to Michigan, then knocked off the Wolverines in that year's championship game.

But none of those champs were asked to reverse a 35-point whipping.

"We're a lot different," said State junior forward Raymar Morgan, who scored 18 points, pulled down nine rebounds and made off with five steals in the Spartans' semifinal win over Connecticut. "Back then, G (center Goran Suton) wasn't even in the building. Delvon (Roe) was still banged up. I think we're just a more experienced team."

But 35 points better?

"They're a lot tougher," UNC senior Danny Green said of the Spartans. "They've been through a lot more. That's an old game. So we're going to try to treat this as a new game."

But 35 points better? Against a Tar Heel team whose closest victory margin in this tournament is 12 points and whose average tourney victory margin is 21 points?

"They're a different team than what I saw on tape," said UConn coach Jim Calhoun of MSU on Saturday night. "We played Purdue. We played Michigan. We beat Wisconsin by 20. We've seen the teams they played. And that's a different team. They were different against Louisville (in the Midwest final). Special. They were close to a special team tonight."

But can they be special against North Carolina team that has been branded as special all season? UNC led Villanova by 17 points in the opening half. It bludgeoned Oklahoma in the South final.

In fact, the Tar Heels' best is so good that even Izzo said of UNC's 83-69 win over 'Nova: "They didn't play that well for North Carolina standards and beat a very good team - not handily, but fairly handily. I think that tells you a little bit about how good North Carolina is."

But before anyone says State is only there because they're trying to win one for their economically ravaged state - or as Spartans point guard Kalin Lucas noted, "It's a storm in the city, so we're trying to bring sunlight to it" - consider these words from Tar Heels boss Roy Williams:

"They're not exactly Charlie's doughnut team. They're Top 10. They're pretty (darned) good. You don't find many national championship-caliber teams playing on Monday night if they're not playing pretty good basketball."

He has a point. Good as 33-4 UNC is, State (31-6) has beaten two straight No. 1 seeds in Louisville and UConn to reach tonight.

The last team to topple three straight No. 1 seeds?

"Arizona, '97," said Williams with a painful chuckle. "I was one of the No. 1s (while at Kansas)."

Beyond the fact that the vast majority of Ford Field will be loudly cheering Spartan green, at least one other reason to believe in State is its rebounding. Smallish and depth-deprived Villanova outrebounded UNC as State was fighting UConn's skyscrapers to a draw.

"It is my biggest concern," said Williams. "No question."

Still, can you really become 35 points better in four months?

"If we had had everybody perfect, the way (UNC) played that night, instead of winning by 35, they could have beat us by 20," said Izzo. "If we play good and they play good, we're losing.

"But," he added, "we've found a way to have teams not play as good against us."

If the Spartans can do that tonight, Izzo and the entire state of Michigan will share a moment they'll never forget.