Biggest Challenges Michigan State Faces in NCAA Tourney Matchup vs. Delaware
The Michigan State Spartans were considered one of the best teams in the nation when the season started in November.
That's no surprise, because Michigan State has been one of the most consistent Big Ten teams under Tom Izzo, and the 2013-14 version of the team was loaded with talent and depth.
The Spartans flashed their ability at the start of the season, but the team was slowed by injuries during the year and struggled down the home stretch of the Big Ten season before getting healthy prior to the Big Ten tournament.
Michigan State rolled past Wisconsin and Michigan in that event to win the Big Ten's postseason get-together. Those performances have earned the Spartans a lot of support as one of the teams that could get to the Final Four and perhaps win the tournament.
Here are the challenges they will face in their first-round NCAA tournament game against Delaware.
Tom Izzo may not be a very happy man to see his team rank as one of the most respected teams when it comes to bracket selections by the experts.
Yes, the Spartans played outstanding basketball in the Big Ten tournament, but does that mean they have come around and are ready to fulfill expectations? Possibly, but perhaps they just had a hot weekend.
Michigan State dropped seven of its last 13 regular-season games before the Big Ten tournament. While injuries to guard Keith Appling and Branden Dawson were key reasons why the Spartans had problems, their return to full health does not guarantee that Michigan State will play at peak efficiency for six games in the tournament.
While they should have more than enough talent and skill to beat Delaware in the opening round, they need to play with excellent execution and consistency right from the start.
We touched on the injury problems that the Spartans faced throughout the season. Appling was troubled by an injured wrist for much of the season. Dawson had a broken bone in his hand that forced him to miss nine games this season. Gary Harris and Adreian Payne also missed time with injuries.
Denzel Valentine was the only regular starter who played in all 34 games to this point in the season. While the Spartans seem to have gotten it together in the Big Ten tournament, just how cohesive will this group be throughout the tournament?
They could have problems with their execution at key moments. That could come into play against Delaware. Probably not enough for them to lose this opening round game, but they could rear up and let Izzo know that his team is not quite the sure thing that many of the experts and bracketologists think they are as the tournament begins.
Delaware's Explosive Offense
Delaware earned its spot in the NCAA tournament because it has a fast-paced offense and the Blue Hens can light up the scoreboard when they are playing their best basketball.
They have a guard-oriented attack led by Devon Saddler, who is averaging 19.7 ppg. He is followed closely by Davon Usher (19.4 ppg) and Jarvis Threatt (18.1 ppg). While Kyle Anderson's average (11.0 ppg) is not quite as high as the other three guards, he has shown the ability to get open and go on a hot streak.
Michigan's State's defensive prowess should be able to contend with Delaware's desire to turn this game into a high-scoring affair, but if two or more of Delaware's guards are on at the same time, it could be a struggle for Izzo's team.
Delaware is capable of going a long hot streak, and that could cause problems for the Spartans.
Since the Delaware Blue Hens are a small team that likes to play four guards regularly, the way to punish them is with big players attacking them down low.
The Spartans have the manpower to do just that with Adreian Payne, Branden Dawson, Matt Costello and Kenny Kaminski. However, it it's not about drawing it up on the whiteboard. The Spartans have to go out and relentlessly pound the ball inside so they can destroy Delaware's ability to defend.
The longer they go without putting Delaware away, the more difficult this game could become.
Scrutiny and Pressure
The heat is on Michigan State. The Spartans are clearly the insider's choice to make it to the Final Four and perhaps win it all. You have to give them a legitimate chance, especially because President Barack Obama made the Spartans his choice to win it all. (Tongue placed firmly in cheek on that one.)
Tom Izzo certainly has a track record of success in the tournament. He has one NCAA championship to his credit with the Spartans, and he has also been to another championship game. His teams have made four other Final Four appearances.
In addition to the skill and talent that opponents will bring, the Spartans will have to contend with the weight and pressure of expectations. Izzo's teams have had success in the past, and that means they know the route to travel.
However, it is still going to be a most difficult journey.