The Horizon League champion Valparaiso Crusaders will be looking to pull the upset and take down the Michigan State Spartans as the teams square off in a Round of 64 game in the Midwest Region. The David vs. Goliath matchup kicks off the incredible two days of play in the Round of 64.
Michigan State enters the tournament following a brutal stretch in which the team went 3-4. It lost to No. 1 Indiana, No. 18 Ohio State and No. 4 Michigan before beating No. 22 Wisconsin to snap the three-game losing streak. It held off Northwestern and Iowa before losing to Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament. Despite the recent losses, playing in the incredibly tough Big Ten should have Michigan State ready to play anybody.
Valparaiso is full of confidence heading into its first NCAA tournament since 2004. It beat Wright State 62-54 to win the Horizon League championship and earn the automatic bid. Including conference tournament play, the Crusaders have won 10 of their last 11 games to post a record of 26-7 heading into the the tournament.
Here is a complete breakdown of Friday's showdown.
Where: Auburn Hills, Michigan
When: Thursday, March 21, at 12:15 p.m. ET
Live Stream: March Madness On Demand
Betting Line: Michigan State -9½ -10 (via Vegas Insider)
Valparaiso Injuries (via USA Today): G Alex Rossi, Heart, Out.
Michigan State Injuries (via USA Today): F Kenny Kaminski, Shoulder, Out.
What's at Stake?
A place in the Round of 32 and keeping the season alive is the simple answer, but it goes deeper than that for both teams.
Michigan State has everything to lose in this first-round matchup. Playing close to home, the Spartans are expected to roll into the Sweet 16 with a potential showdown against Duke looming. If they get their priorities out of order, they could definitely have their hands full with this Valparaiso team. A first-round loss would be a huge negative for the prestigious program.
In the same way, a victory would be absolutely huge for Valparaiso's program. After seven tournament appearances in nine years from 1996-2004, Valparaiso hadn't been able to get back into the tournament since then. Only once has Valparaiso gotten into the second round. As a 13th seed in 1998, the Crusaders advanced to the school's only Sweet 16 appearance.
Players to Watch
Michigan State: G Gary Harris
The freshman guard still has some growing to do, but has proved throughout the year that he can be a difference-maker for the Spartans. Harris is entering the tournament averaging 12.9 points, 2.4 rebounds and 1.3 assists per game.
When Harris plays well for the Spartans, it takes pressure off junior guard Keith Appling. In big games this year, it's seemed that Appling has almost tried to take on too much responsibility and it's cost the team.
In the Spartans' three-game losing streak against No. 1 Indiana, No. 18 Ohio State and No. 4 Michigan, Appling scored just six points, three points and nine points respectively. For the guard that averages 13.6 per contest, that's a significant drop.
The Spartans need Harris to stretch the Valparaiso defense by using his ability to get to the rim as well as his smooth three-point shot. Entering the tournament, Harris is shooting a dominant 41.3 percent from downtown. If he knocks down shots in the tournament, Michigan State has the weapons to make a run in the tournament.
Valparaiso: F Ryan Broekhoff
Senior forward Ryan Broekhoff has grown into a dominant player for the Crusaders. In his fourth year with the team, Broekhoff is averaging 15.9 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game.
Broekhoff has done it all for Valparaiso this season. He leads the team in averages for points, rebounds, blocks and minutes. He is second in steals per game and third in assists per game. There's nothing that Broekhoff doesn't do to help his team win.
While he's scored double digits in all but three games this year, two of them have come in the last three games. On March 2, he was held to seven points on 3-of-8 shooting against Green Bay. Against Wright State in the Horizon League championship game, Broekhoff shot 2-of-8 and only added seven points once again.
Valparaiso's best chance at beating Michigan State is getting the ball to Broekhoff and having him knock down shots as well as getting to the free-throw line. When he's doing both, Valparaiso's offense is capable of putting up some points.
Key Matchup: Broekhoff vs. Michigan Defense
The 6'7", 215-pound Broekhoff will be the focus for both teams. Valparaiso needs him to put in a dominant performance on offense, while Michigan State will look to shut down the Crusaders' best weapon.
If Broekhoff is able to have success and force even more Michigan State attention on him, it should open up things for the rest of the team. Forward Kevin Van Wijk has come on as of late and has benefited from the attention of Broekhoff. The 240-pound forward is averaging 12.2 points and 7.6 rebounds per game over the team's last five contests.
By shutting down Broekhoff with limited resources, Michigan State will be to focus solely on playing its game and putting up points. The Spartans have the superior size, talent and athleticism to out-power and out-last. It's just a matter of not allowing a sharp-shooter to take advantage of their defense and create weaknesses.
Prediction: Michigan State Wins
While Broekhoff has the potential to create problems for Michigan State, the rest of the Valparaiso Crusaders don't have enough firepower to get past Michigan State. The difference in athleticism and overall talent levels is just too great for the underdogs to get a win.
There is also the experience factor. Michigan State is a perennial contender coached by one of the best in all of college basketball. Valparaiso just doesn't have the coaching to compete. During his first two years as a head coach, Bryce Drew has done wonderful things at Valparaiso, including just getting to the tournament. He and his team will grow from this experience.
Expect Michigan State to pull away early and continue to create distance between the teams on the scoreboard. If Broekhoff gets hot at any point, Valparaiso may be able to make the game more competitive, but Michigan State will prevail.
Score Prediction: Michigan State 76, Valparaiso 51