Well here we are again.
Yet ANOTHER Michigan State basketball squad has marched into the NCAA tournament, under-rated and discounted before the first round even tipped off.
The pundits had them losing to Kansas (a team they had already beaten), and being demolished by Big East champion Louisville, scarcely considering that Sparty had been hovering in the top-ten for most of the year, and scarcely considering Tom Izzo’s penchant for getting his team ready for deep runs in March.
While other top teams were sputtering in their conference tournaments (Pitt, UCONN, UNC, etc.), only the Spartans were demonized for it.
While other teams were given passes when they dropped an occasional game, only the Spartans failed to catch a break, even though they were without their multi-talented big-man Goran Suton in the early season, without their leading scorer Raymar Morgan in the late season and without the full potential of talented youngster Delvon Roe throughout the entire year.
While the Memphis’ of the world were compiling exaggerated records in after-thought conferences, it seemed that only the Spartans had to answer for the quality of their league. As if playing in a conference that plays lock down defense night-in and night-out is a crime; as if from top to bottom the Big Ten isn’t still pretty damn good; as if the ACC is any better.
And though it would be foolish to argue that the Big East wasn’t clearly the best league in the nation this year, what exactly does that mean?
That all the other leagues are garbage?
That there aren’t a handful of teams in damn near ANY league that couldn’t play in and conceivably win it?
This is what the pundits would have you believe, and I am fairly certain that if somehow MSU was playing Syracuse in the final four, they would be the dog based on this nonsensical fairytale.
Well I’m here to tell you that College hoops ain’t no fairytale, and that the Michigan State Spartans will be standing victorious Saturday night, preparing themselves for another chance at the national title.
1. Sparty has the bigs to contend with UCONN’s formidable front line
If we consider how UCONN has twice lost to Pitt this season, the potential for a rewrite of those encounters seems very real. How did Pitt do it? They did it by challenging the Huskies up front.
Though MSU doesn’t possess a multi-talented, low-post beast like Dejuan Blair, they do have a lot of big bodies they can throw in there to give UCONN some troubles.
Between seven foot, 260 pound center Idong Ibok and power forwards Marquise Gray and Draymond Green, State has fifteen fouls and a lot of banging to hand out to Hasheem Thabeet and Stanley Robinson if they have notions of easy hoops in the paint.
Add to this the multi-talented Goran Suton who has effectively neutralized top-quality opposing big men throughout the tournament, and showed the extraordinary ability to not only flash low-post offense, but also high-post and three point game.
Defensively, UCONN will have to decide how they are going to handle his range. If they play zone, Suton should have wide-open looks from fifteen feet as he did against Louisville. If they play man and bring Thabeet out, State’s quick guards and wings will have the opportunity to exploit the interior. Which brings me to my next point.
2. State has better all-around guard play
As with Pitt's Lavance Fields, Sparty has a floor general in Kalin Lucas who is unlikely to get rattled.
Evidenced by their effortless control of Louisville’s feared press in what amounted to a home game for the Cardinals, State has three legitimate ball-handlers (Lucas, Walton, Lucious) who should have little trouble running sets from the backcourt.
If they prefer to implement a zone offense, they have a couple guys that can knock down shots, with the resurgence of Derrell Summers, the range of Suton, and the abilities of Walton and Lucas.
On the defensive end, Walton may be the best backcourt defender in the nation and will certainly give the Huskies fits, as he never backs down, never takes a rest, and never stops moving. His relentless pursuit of Terrence Williams may have single-handedly sunk the Cards.
This of course leads to my next point.
3. State’s man defense is brutal
Pitt showed the ability to get physical with UCONN, and even while playing in a league like the Big-ten that prides itself on tough D, MSU’s ferocious defense stands out.
Louisville showed some ability to backdoor the sometimes overly-aggressive Spartans, but this success was fleeting, and the story of the game was the inability of the Cardinals to get open looks.
State will contest EVERY shot. When they get caught, they are deep enough to foul without worry of foul trouble. They will help over the top of screens and cover for one another underneath. This type of relentless pressure tends to wear on a team and can end up forcing mistakes, poor shots, and turnovers.
They crash the boards like madmen, leading the NCAA in rebounding margin, and are the first to dive after a loose ball, and often the first to come up with it.
Possessions become very important when playing the Spartans, and teams that are used to throwing a few away every now and then, find that they don’t get them back at the end of the game.
Add to this what will certainly be a very loud and hostile crowd, and UCONN will be hard pressed to remain composed and in control. Their ability to handle these circumstances will ultimately decide whether they win or lose, which brings me to my final point.
4. Sparty is playing at home
Oh it might not be “home” in the traditional sense, as East Lansing is actually an hour and a half to the West, but by any measure, this is a home game for Michigan State. What’s more, it’s a home game in front of over 70,000 screaming Michiganders, desperately hungry for something to cheer about in depression-riddled Detroit.
And though there might not be a tangible explanation as to why teams seem to play better at home, the fact remains that they do. The crowd gives them energy, and confidence, and you better believe that coach Tom Izzo, who in my opinion needs to be in the conversation as the best coach in the nation, will have his team fired up and game-planned to the hilt.
What does it all mean?
Are the Spartans a lock to be playing for the title?
In this business we tend to speak in absolutes, citing statistics like they mean anything once the ball is tipped, and spouting opinions like they’re scientific facts. And let’s be honest, at times MSU has struggled to shoot the ball, and such a lapse against UCONN would be absolutely detrimental.
But here’s what I know.
There is no reason why the Spartans CAN’T beat the mighty Huskies on Saturday night, as they match up well, have the defense to make them work, and have the guard play to control the tempo.
So in the spirit of the biz, while admitting my own completely biased opinion as a lifelong Spartan fan, it’s pretty clear that Sparty wins this game...
...and is the instantly discounted underdog for the next one.