Michigan State Basketball: Why the Spartans Aren't Locks to Win 2014 Title

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Michigan State Basketball: Why the Spartans Aren't Locks to Win 2014 Title
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Tom Izzo's teams usually rise to the challenge. But don't bet the farm just yet.

It’s not as if Tom Izzo scrambled to find excuses or some kind of reason—logical or illogical—to explain why Michigan State wasn’t playing well.

No, one way or another—and all at once, it seemed—those “excuses” just found their way toward the Spartans, who entered the season as one of the favorites to win the 2014 national title but fell on hard luck during the regular season.

Injuries to Gary Harris, Travis Trice, Keith Appling, Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson did nothing for progress.

But after Sunday’s redemption, a 69-55 thrashing of Michigan in the Big Ten tournament title match, Michigan State is considered one of the favorites to cut the nets down April 7 at Jerry’s World, per Vegas Insider.

How in the world did it come to this? Four weeks ago, the Spartans were going through the wringer. Actually, in all honesty, the skid started a couple of weeks before then; losing 80-75 to the Wolverines on Jan. 25 was the sign of trouble—major trouble.

After falling to John Beilein in East Lansing, Michigan State tried to put together some sort of “normal” winning streak—you know, the eight- and 10-conference-game binges that are indicative of legitimate title contenders.

But that didn’t happen.

No, Izzo’s boys didn’t wake up until the league postseason, stringing together an impressive three-game tilt that earned a second tournament championship banner since 2012.

 

It's OK to Be Cautious

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Apprehensive?

Don’t worry. You’re well within reason.

The allure of Izzo’s “Mr. March” persona can’t be denied, and the 19-year veteran coach can’t be counted out during what has been affectionately dubbed as “his” month.

In 2000, the Mateen Cleaves-led Flintstones beat Florida for the title. Since 1999, Izzo has taken teams to six Final Fours, with 2010's being the most recent. He just called a great game against his nemesis, John Beilein of Michigan, during the Big Ten tournament finale. 

He's got a resume. 

And four ESPN college basketball analysts think he'll get his second national title.

Is that a death sentence or blessing?

Based on math and stat geekery, Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight.com didn't forecast a national title for the Spartans during his televised spot Sunday night on ESPN.

For the record, he picked Louisville, Arizona and Florida to join the Izzos at Cowboys Stadium. 

Silver has been golden with predictions. He's correctly predicted outcomes of political elections with amazing accuracy. He probably knows tomorrow's Lotto numbers. 

He's that good. 

 

It Takes More Than Two

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Gary Harris scored 15 and Adreian Payne scored seven vs. Michigan.

The song says "it takes two." 

In the case of the Big Ten tourney, it takes three—and the Spartans finally proved they could do a back-to-back plus one.

Now they have to double that if they want to reach the Promised Land in Arlington. 

Have you seen the East bracket? It's no Midwest, but Virginia just disposed of Duke in the ACC title bout. Iowa State topped Baylor for Big 12 honors but not before ousting Kansas, a strong national-title contender. 

Expecting a Cyclones-Spartans Elite Eight isn't out of the question. With similar athletic talent, the teams seem to match up well. Michigan State has a little more firepower, but DeAndre Kane, Melvin Ejim and Naz Long aren't scrubs. 

Getting out of the East will be much tougher than some major media members suggest. 

The mental factor of basketball could come into play, too. Although sitting at No. 6 in the bracket, North Carolina is likely going to be ousted by the Spartans—that's just what history dictates, and it's difficult to fight history. 

During the Madness, Izzo is 0-4 vs. the Tar Heels, who beat him for the 2009 title, knocked him off an aircraft carrier (in the 2011 Carrier Classic exhibition) and stomped him at the Breslin Center back in the pre-B1G season. So, yeah, getting out of the East will be a breeze...

Don't believe the hype. This is a sleeping giant of a region, one that also has Villanova, UConn and a sneaky Memphis squad. 

If Michigan State shoots 2-of-17 from the perimeter like it did against Michigan, someone will make the Spartans pay. It's nearly impossible to get away with such errant shooting twice. 

 

Optimism and March Magic

All of the solid backing in the world can't trump Izzo's rep. Tired, perhaps drained, the gritty roamer of sidelines and scolder of refs is just too good at what he does. 

See Sunday's "not so fast, Michigan" drubbing of the Wolverines, who weren't really going to win three, right?! 

 

Final Four, Then What? 

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Say predictions come true and Michigan State makes the Final Four. OK, that's not much of a stretch. Under Izzo, every four-year player has been to at least one Final Four. 

Adreian Payne and Keith Appling are seniors, but they've yet to reach the mecca of college hoops. They're due. Factor in both of their previous injuries (sprained foot for Payne, wrist/hand for Appling), and the pair of elders has quite the storybook ending in sight. 

What's it going to be?

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March is built on that type of stuff. 

But there's Louisville, the defending national champions, that lurks as the Midwest's No. 4 seed. With Montrezl Harrell, the Cardinals could easily expose the Spartans' soft interior. Izzo needs more push from Matt Costello, Alex Gauna and Gavin Schilling if he wants to avoid being pushed around the paint this spring. 

When hot, Michigan, the region's No. 2, is certainly capable of going all the way. It beat the Spartans twice this season, so don't forget that.

Florida is the favorite, according to ESPN's Joe Lunardi, but Arizona is also a possible candidate. The Gators and Wildcats each had sustained runs of great ball during the regular season. 

Michigan State did not. 

It's OK to shy away from the "sure thing" talk. Nothing is a sure thing, and this year's tournament is stuffed with unknowns. 

A three-game flash of genius is a start. But the Spartans need to dance a couple of rounds before being stamped with a guarantee. 

 

Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81

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