Biggest Challenges Michigan State Faces in NCAA Tourney Matchup vs. Harvard

Steve SilvermanFeatured ColumnistMarch 21, 2014

Biggest Challenges Michigan State Faces in NCAA Tourney Matchup vs. Harvard

0 of 5

    Young Kwak/Associated Press

    Michigan State bears no resemblance to the team that went 6-7 down the home stretch of the Big Ten season.

    Prior to the Big Ten tournament, Michigan State was just another team. While they had been highly thought of before the start of the season, they had been damaged by injuries and were no longer special.

    However, Tom Izzo's team got healthy before the start of the Big Ten tournament and rolled to three straight victories and the championship. The last two victories came over Wisconsin and Michigan, and neither game was close.

    Michigan State rolled to an easy win over Delaware in its first NCAA tournament game, and that has earned them a spot in the round of 32 against a surprisingly tough Harvard team.

    Here's a look at the challenges the Spartans will face against the Crimson.

Attack at a Fast Pace

1 of 5

    Young Kwak/Associated Press

    Harvard is a strong, tough team that wants to get in a physical battle most nights.

    That strategy was successful for them in the Ivy League, and they were able to handle Cincinnati in their first NCAA tournament game. It may not work out against Michigan State, but that has to be the strategy Tommy Amaker wants to employ.

    That's because getting into a running game with Michigan State simply won't work out. Even when Michigan State was struggling this year, their athletic ability was impressive. Guards like Gary Harris, Keith Appling and Denzel Valentine are at their best when they are pushing the pace.

    The Crimson are at their worst when being forced to run. Michigan State can turn the game in its favor rather quickly by running whenever possible.

Punish the Harvard Frontcourt

2 of 5

    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Harvard has a problem when it comes to contending with the Michigan State frontcourt. The Spartans have a couple of players in Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson who can assert themselves and punish Harvard forwards Kyle Casey and Steve Moundou-Missi. 

    Both are big men who check in at 6'7" and 225 pounds, which is basically the same size as Payne and Dawson. However, the Harvard forwards just don't have the same kind of skill level.

    Payne put his skill on display against Delaware, as he scored 41 points in Michigan State's opening NCAA tournament victory. Nobody expects him to match that total, but he should be able to stay hot. Dawson does not want to get left behind. Look for a big effort here.

    The Spartans have a significant edge in skill in the frontcourt and they must exploit it, or they could leave the Crimson with an opening.

Don't Give Harvard Hope

3 of 5

    Harvard coach Tommy Amaker
    Harvard coach Tommy AmakerElaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Harvard is a mentally strong team that is not going to quit if it falls behind in the first half. Head coach Tommy Amaker has built a team that has a resilient nature. It can withstand one or two broadside hits that result in key runs.

    However, that's where the Spartans have to be strong and keep pushing hard. The Spartans can't be satisfied to go on a 10-2 run and then let up. If they do, Harvard is capable of withstanding it and then going on a run of its own.

    Michigan State has to push hard and demoralize the underdog. If they can extend the lead to 15 points or more at any time—particularly in the second half—it's doubtful Harvard has the firepower to get back in the game.

Pressure Defense

4 of 5

    Young Kwak/Associated Press

    Why were the Spartans among the national preseason favorites this season?

    Because Tom Izzo emphasizes the fundamentals like few coaches do. One of the ways he does that is by preaching hard-nosed, in-your-face defense.

    The Spartans play tough defense year in and year out. Even when they were battling injuries and weren't able to put their regular lineup on the floor for much of the season, everyone whom Izzo put in the lineup was expected to play punishing defense.

    The Spartans held opponents to a .402 shooting percentage (subscription required), and that's one area where there can be no letup.

    They must continue to play stifling defense or they will give their opponent hope of registering an upset.

Bench Play

5 of 5

    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Because Michigan State asks so much of its players in every trip up and down the floor, they have to work their bench into the game.

    Yes, they could shorten their bench against a physically gifted opponent, but that's not the way Izzo wants to play. He wants to get players like Travis Trice, Kenny Kaminski and Matt Costello involved.

    Trice is a capable scorer who can light it up at times from the backcourt. He averages 22.3 minutes per game. Kaminski and Costello are tough forwards who will dive for loose balls and bang the glass.

    All three of those subs are energy players capable of giving the team a lift and not just giving the starters a rest.

    If the Spartans are going to have a productive run in the tournament, they need their bench to produce every game.