Michigan State Basketball: 5 Predictions for Spartans in 2014 NCAA Tournament
Before going out on a limb (ahem) and projecting a national championship for the healthy-as-they're-going-to-get Michigan State Spartans, sticking to a short list of smaller goals should be the focus as the Tom Izzos head into the 2014 NCAA Tournament.
Drilling the Michigan Wolverines, 69-55, in the Big Ten Tournament title fight was a start—a great start for a team that hadn't won back-to-back games since late January.
Michigan State proved, while running at full-tilt, that it's far from down-in-the-dumps—it just took a while to wake up and find some motivation.
The Dance awaits, and the No. 22-ranked Spartans (26-8, 12-6 B1G) will face the Delaware Blue Hens (25-9, 14-2 Colonial) on Thursday in Spokane, Wash, the Land of Jud (Heathcote).
This slideshow will deliver a handful of predictions—short of calling for a national championship—into a neat, easy-to-follow package.
Delaware's Devon Saddler Won't Top Scoring Average
Devon Saddler is one of the CAA's top scorers.
That being said, ignoring his average of 19.7 points per game would be a mistake.
So to avoid being exploited, Michigan State must pay extra-close attention to the senior shooting guard.
For reference, Izzo should review Saddler's 17-point offering during his team's 76-64 loss to then-No.3-ranked Ohio State. The Buckeyes had a difficult time defending the shifty scorer.
Assuming that they do their homework, the Spartans shouldn't have a problem holding the bucket-filler to less than 20 points, a level that he hasn't reached since a 24-point burst March 1 vs. Charleston.
Travis Trice Will Be Key
Forget Gary Harris, Keith Appling, Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson.
Those guys are beyond important—of course they'll be key.
But keep a keen eye on Travis Trice, a junior guard whose value is shooting up the charts; he's 6'0" and 170 pounds of non-stop.
Averaging 7.4 points and a little better than an rebound and pair of assists per game, he's a non-factor on paper. However, he's a knock-down shooter and high-tempo scorer in hiding.
With 17-, 15- and a few other mid-to-high-teens outputs, Trice has shown that he can indeed come out of thin air and stack the scoreboard. He also hits about 81 percent of his free throws and 45 percent of his three-pointers.
That's always a plus.
And for as long as the opponent thinks that he poses minimal threat, the Spartans will keep winning.
Video via the Big Ten Network: See Trice dunk. Yes, he can do that.
Branden Dawson Will Soar
Branden Dawson's athleticism and skill have never been in question.
But his endurance and motor have.
With a hand break in the rear-view mirror, the junior wing is finally ready to show why he entered East Lansing with a 5-star rating, per Rivals.com.
Hitting the postseason with a vengeance, the 6'6," 225-pound dunk machine has scored at least 14 points per game.
During the Big Ten Tournament, he put up 15 against No. 8 Michigan (No. 1 seed of tourney), 14 against No. 12 Wisconsin and 16 against Northwestern.
Most Outstanding Player of Big Ten Tournament: Branden Dawson. Got my vote with no hesitation. Payne and Harris also on All-Tourney team.— Joe Rexrode (@joerexrode) March 16, 2014
|vs. Michigan: 15 points, 6 rebounds, 1 block|
|vs. Wisconsin: 14 points, 7 rebounds, 1 block|
|vs. Northwestern: 16 points, 9 rebounds, 1 block|
Round of 32 Will Be Close
Assuming that No. 4-seeded Michigan State gets past Delaware, it'll face either No. 12-seeded Harvard or No. 5-seeded Cincinnati, which shared the American Athletic Conference regular-season crown with Louisville, the defending national champion.
See the full bracket here, courtesy of CBS.
The No. 4 vs. No. 13, No. 5 vs. No. 12 and subsequent pairings from those initial matchups seem to provide a lot of drama during this particular time of year.
But let's assume that Cincy takes care of Harvard—that'd give the Spartans a compelling and extremely competitive No. 4 vs. No. 5 pairing.
Equally interesting, facing No. 12 Harvard would also make for a tough go in the Round of 32.
Either way Izzo cuts it, he's bound for a challenging second dance of the NCAA Tournament.
Ponder This One
What if Izzo loses early? Then what?
An untimely exit could prompt Izzo think about the big picture, per Sports Illustrated's Michael Rosenberg, who wrote an interesting piece on the Legend of Izzo.
My column on Tom Izzo at a crossroads: http://t.co/K21aHFoV7U— Michael Rosenberg (@Rosenberg_Mike) March 14, 2014
2014 East Region Will Provide Insight
Prior to the star of the 2013-14 season, the Spartans were a favorite to reach Jerry's World.
And now that they're back to normal, they should remain in the conversation.
Calling them the favorite's favorite would be a stretch. However, the tune could change if they get out of the East. Call that certification.
So far, the region doesn't appear to be as intimidating as the Midwest, but it hosts No. 1 Virginia, No. 2 Villanova, No. 3 Iowa State and No. 6 North Carolina.
Virginia took the ACC tourney title from Duke.
Villanova won the Big East regular-season title but lost in the conference tournament to Seton Hall.
Iowa State downed Kansas before overtaking Baylor during the Big 12 bout.
And Michigan State has never beaten North Carolina in March Madness. Izzo is responsible for four of five losses.
Will the sixth be the charm?
Yes. As mentioned in the intro, we'll cut short of title-winning predictions for the moment. That'll be a topic for another day. However, this prediction should suffice: Izzo will comment on how either Iowa State, North Carolina, Villanova or Virginia (or some combination of) gave him a fight for his life.
And then he'll say how his team was better off because of it.
Tom Izzo fights back tears as he shouts to the crowd "some pretty good to us in Indianapolis" pic.twitter.com/gJTWMMNC60— Jennifer Hammond (@HammerFox2) March 16, 2014
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81