Michigan State Basketball: Highs and Lows of Spartans' 2014 NCAA Tournament

Brad AlmquistFeatured ColumnistMarch 28, 2014

Michigan State Basketball: Highs and Lows of Spartans' 2014 NCAA Tournament

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    For a team that has extended its winning streak to five games, while resurrecting its season, Michigan State's ongoing experience in the 2014 NCAA tournament has been mainly positive.

    Discounting its poor stretch against Harvard that actually gave the Crimson a momentary lead, the Spartans have been nothing short of sensational. Both its wins came against a No. 12 and No. 13 seed, though both opponents were much better than their seeds suggested.

    Now, moving forward into its matchup against Virginia, let's reflect on State's highs and lows throughout the Big Dance.

High: Branden Dawson's Surge

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    Branden Dawson's performance through the last few games have finally justified his 5-star status coming out of high school. Frankly, for the majority of his career (including this season), Dawson has provided short stretches of dominance, which have been overshadowed by relatively unspectacular showings.

    But that looks to be a thing of the past.

    This Dawson has asserted himself as one of the premier forwards remaining in the tournament. In his last two games, he is averaging 18 points on a remarkable 73 percent shooting. He also pulled down 17 boards through that span.

    Dawson's relentless style of play, complemented by his freakish athleticism, has been one of the glaring positives after the first week of tournament play. He is running the floor hard, finishing everything, rebounding well and defending multiple positions.

    The Gary, Ind., product's career is quickly taking off. Whether or not he continues to play this way will likely become a determining factor in State's destiny. This team jumps to another level when he is scoring and tuned into the game.

High: Adreian Payne and Gary Harris Combination

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    Adreian Payne's 41-point eruption against Delaware marked the senior's best offensive game of his career. He has controlled the paint and scored by utilizing a variety of moves from his diverse skill set.

    Meanwhile, Gary Harris has steadily continued his role as the team's go-to scorer in tense situations. Last game against Harvard, as the Spartans were reeling, Harris knocked down two monumental three-point shots, which helped give State its bid to the Sweet 16.

    The sophomore marksman has been State's most reliable offensive player all season. Now with a recuperated lineup, and some of the pressure taken off of them, Payne and Harris have emerged as arguably the country's best guard-forward tandem.

    Through the tournament's first two contests, they have combined to average over 40 points per game. Both players are capable of shouldering the offensive workload entirely.

    Payne and Harris are Sparty's most reliable scorers, and they have lived up to the billing thus far in the tournament.

High: Team Defense

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    Michigan State's ongoing run has been fueled by the team's commitment on the defensive end. Through the first two games, the Spartans are holding teams to only 38 percent shooting from the floor.

    That impressive feat shouldn't be diminished after considering that their first two wins came against lower seeds. Delaware had one of the most high-powered attacks in the country, boasting three players who average over 18 points and headlined by Devon Saddler, the program's all-time leading scorer.

    State held them to 36 percent shooting.

    Then, Harvard, an ultra-efficient squad, was held in check by the Spartans for the majority of the game. If it weren't for a brief spurt that put the Crimson back in the game, Michigan State would have coasted to a victory largely due to its defensive excellence.

    These kind of performances have been occurring since the Big Ten tournament, where the Spartans stifled Wisconsin and Michigan, two of the nation's best offenses.

    All five starters are fantastic individual defenders. But it has been their cognizance of each other and playing as one unit that have led them to success on the defensive side of the floor. They have the guards to contain and the big men to rim-protect.

    Sparty can be as formidable on the defensive end as it is offensively. It must continue this type of play as the tournament enters its deeper stages.

Low: Turnovers

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    Other than relinquishing its lead against Harvard for a stretch, the Spartans have been outstanding. There aren't many negatives to take away from a team that has won five straight and is arguably playing its best ball of the season.

    However, if there is one glaring concern, it's the excess of turnovers.

    This has been an ongoing issue for these Spartans, which is partly understandable because of their desire to play in transition. That style generates more possessions, which subsequently offers the possibility for more potential mishaps.

    So, the 30 turnovers State has given away through its first two contests may not be as high as it may seem in accordance with its possessions. But it's still too high for this particular team.

    This squad is too experienced and talented to be surrendering this many turnovers. At times, these Spartans look to push the ball when there is no need, which can then lead to turnovers. In other instances, lazy passes are the issue.

    As State generally does so well, it needs to focus on running offense with fluidity and passing with crispness. Turnovers are inevitable, especially for a team that tends to push the ball so frequently.

    But State can still cut down the number of turnovers. Not only do they eliminate a shot opportunity for a talented offensive team, but they also fuel the opposing team with a potential scoring opportunity at the other end.