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Michigan State Spartans' Blueprint to Win the 2014 NCAA Tournament

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistMarch 16, 2014

Michigan State Spartans' Blueprint to Win the 2014 NCAA Tournament

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    Tony Ding/Associated Press

    Michigan State (26-8) is the standard-bearer for the Big Ten nearly every year.

    Head coach Tom Izzo wouldn't have it any other way. However, the 2013-14 season has not gone the way the Spartans' legendary coach (one NCAA championship and six Final Four appearances) would have scripted it. Michigan State entered the Big Ten tournament with a 6-7 record in its previous 13 games and looking...well...ordinary.

    Michigan State certainly had a recovery in the conference tournament, as it defeated archrival Michigan in the final, but does that mean the Spartans are ready for a long run in the NCAA tournament?

    Here's the formula the fourth-seeded Spartans will have to follow from the East bracket. They face the 13th-seeded Delaware Blue Hens (25-9) in the first round, and they will try to string together six NCAA tournament victories to add to Izzo's legacy.

Spartans Must Stay Healthy

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    Kiichiro Sato/Associated Press

    Every team has to contend with injuries during the season, and those injuries took their toll on Michigan State.

    However, Izzo's team is the healthiest that it has been all season as it prepares for Delaware in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Branden Dawson missed seven games with a broken hand, and point guard Keith Appling has been troubled since December with pain in his wrist that impacted nearly everything he did with the ball in his hand.

    Additionally, Gary Harris (ankle), Adreian Payne (foot) and Travis Trice (multiple blisters) were slowed by injuries.

    All of those players are healthy now. Dawson is a double-digit scorer and the team's best rebounder. When he can go to the glass without fear of injury, the Spartans are a much tougher team.

    When Appling can play his game without pain radiating through his wrist, the Spartans have a dynamic quality that was missing down the stretch. His ability to dribble, shoot, pass and catch the ball becomes second nature, and this team becomes dangerous, as it proved against Wisconsin in the Big Ten semifinal victory.

Hounding Presence on Defense

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Defense has been the signature for Izzo's team since he started coaching the Spartans prior to the 1995-96 season.

    It's a given that Michigan State will simply not let up on the defensive end and that the Spartans will perform in that area when the game is on the line.

    The Spartans are still a good defensive team, but the sheen of greatness was erased throughout the regular season. The numbers tell a big part of the story, as Michigan State allowed 65.6 points per game. That figure may sound decent, but it ranked seventh in the Big Ten.

    More than the numbers, it seemed like the Spartans were vulnerable on defense at key moments. They would not have been so ordinary down the stretch if the defense had been up to par. 

    The defense picked up in the Big Ten tournament, and it must continue to get better with each game the Spartans play in the NCAA tournament.

Scoring Versatility

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    The Spartans don't want to depend on one or two players for the bulk of their scoring. 

    A quick look at the team's stats reveals that Izzo has four players in Gary Harris, Adreian Payne, Keith Appling and Branden Dawson who average 10 or more points per game. 

    Six players reached double figures in the semifinal victory over Wisconsin. Denzel Valentine (12 points) and Travis Trice (11 points) also reached double figures against the Badgers.

    That's what the Spartans are going to need to make a long run in the tournament. The return to health of Appling makes that consistent offense a much greater possibility in the tournament. Even the best defensive teams will find themselves perplexed trying to defend six players who are legitimate scoring threats.

    If Izzo's players can maintain their scoring depth, the Spartans are going to be a very tough out.

Championship Mentality

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    The Michigan State football team set the tone for the basketball program this year.

    Izzo and Michigan State football coach Mark D'Antonio have grown close over the years. While D'Antonio has said that he has taken his cues from Izzo on how to run a championship-caliber program, Izzo took his players to the Big Ten championship game in Indianapolis in December and saw the Spartans defeat the favored Ohio State Buckeyes.

    His players learned how a quiet, determined team could beat an undefeated, favored team when the championship was on the line. 

    "When I suggested it (going to the Big Ten football title game) to the players two weeks before … the mission was to learn how to win a championship,'' Izzo told MLive.com.

    If Izzo's players learned those lessons, they have a chance to play deep into the tournament.

Predictions for NCAA Tournament Draw

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Let's get serious. Michigan State found its game in the Big Ten tournament and handled two excellent teams in Wisconsin and Michigan with relative ease to win the championship.

    Izzo knows his team has reached a level he wants it to be at as the tournament begins. His team will have no trouble overpowering an impressive Delaware team that just does not have the athletes to match up with the Spartans.

    It will get much tougher in the second round, as the Spartans will face the winner between Cincinnati and Harvard. Still, the Spartans are not going to lose in the first weekend of the tournament. They will survive and advance. 

    The third round will be the telling story for the Spartans. If there are no major upsets, they will face the ACC champion Virginia Cavaliers. The Cavs are a powerful team that punished Duke in the ACC championship game, and it appears the MSU-Virginia game will be the stuff of legends. If the Spartans stay healthy, look for the upset.

    That would mean they make it through to the Elite Eight and play Iowa State or Providence. While the Cyclones certainly would give the Spartans trouble, Michigan State should be able to win this game and move onto the Final Four once again.

    This could mean a matchup with undefeated Florida, and that's where the Michigan State season comes to an end. The Gators are simply too strong.

     

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