5 Biggest Questions for UConn in NCAA Tournament Elite Eight vs. Michigan State
The UConn Huskies continued their magical run Friday night in New York City, upsetting the No. 3-seeded Iowa State Cyclones 81-76 at Madison Square Garden to advance to the Elite Eight. It's the Huskies' first trip to the Elite Eight under second-year coach Kevin Ollie and their first since 2011.
The 2011 team, led by current Charlotte Bobcats guard Kemba Walker, went on to win the national championship. Given how the past two weeks have played out, this team could be primed for a repeat performance.
But standing in the Huskies' way are the Michigan State Spartans. The Spartans have won six consecutive games and had just enough to get past the stingy defense of No. 1 seed Virginia on Friday night.
Tom Izzo's group is also playing to extend one of the more remarkable streaks in college basketball. In Izzo's 19 years at the helm in East Lansing, he's never had a fourth-year senior not reach at least one Final Four. With a win Sunday, Adreian Payne and Keith Appling would keep that streak alive.
Both schools are powerhouse programs, and both are seeking a return to glory. But only one can emerge from the Garden with its ticket punched for Arlington and the Final Four.
These are the five biggest questions that will determine your winner in the East Region.
Will DeAndre Daniels' Emergence Continue?
We've said for a while now that if DeAndre Daniels could finally find some consistency in his overall game that the rest of the field would be in some serious trouble.
And guess what?
It looks like it's finally happened. And the rest of the field is in serious trouble.
Daniels came up huge in the Huskies' 81-76 victory over Iowa State Friday night, scoring a team-high 27 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. He showed not just flashes but an entire game of the type of play that could push a team over the top during this time of year.
The Huskies have waited all season for someone not named Shabazz Napier or Ryan Boatright to put his foot on the gas and provide some consistent offense. Daniels has been that guy during the tournament, averaging 18.6 points per game and upping his play, particularly when others are struggling.
Daniels has been nothing short of brilliant in the Huskies’ three tournament wins, and he's dangerous from the perimeter and not just in the paint. If he can keep up this level of play against a talented but not overly big Michigan State team, his Huskies should be heading to Arlington, Texas.
If he slides back, then all bets are off.
Can the Huskies Slow Down Adreian Payne?
Adreian Payne is a big, big boy.
And he isn't just physically big; he plays big in big spots.
Coming out of a timeout—in which Coach Izzo got in his face about lack of defensive hustle—and with 90 seconds to play in a tied game, Payne was responsible for the Spartans' next five points, nailing a triple and setting up Branden Dawson for a dunk to put Michigan State ahead for good against No. 1 seed Virginia.
Payne can play physical in the paint, but he's also a threat from the perimeter. The 6'10" senior connected on 44 percent of his threes during the regular season, and he's over 50 percent during the tournament.
Add to that his ability to bang around in the paint and fight for rebounds, and you have yourself a player capable of taking over a game.
The Huskies have faced their share of teams with dangerous big men in the tournament but none quite like this one. They'll need to limit him—or, at worst, slow him down—if they want to keep the Spartans from sending them back to Storrs a few wins shy of the goal.
Does Shabazz Napier Have Another Big Game in Him?
You could definitely say that the Walker comparisons were a bit premature coming into the NCAA tournament, but Napier now sits just three victories away from justifying every single one of them. He has been nothing short of brilliant in this year's tournament. And that's high praise, because he has a chance now to bring his team back to the promised land of college basketball.
During the season, Napier—the reigning American Athletic Conference Player of the Year—had a reputation for being a streaky shooter, equally capable of taking over or disappearing from a game. But that streaky player died the minute the Huskies needed him in the second half against St. Joseph's.
Napier dominated the second frame and overtime, leading his team to a come-from-behind second-round victory. Ditto against Villanova, where after missing most of the first half with foul trouble, Napier scored 21 of his 24 points in the second half to send the Huskies’ longtime rivals packing.
And then came Iowa State.
Daniels was the real story in that victory, but Napier was no slouch, adding 19 points and five boards of his own.
Special players come up big in March, and Napier has shown he's as good a closer—if not better—as any player in the nation. If he continues playing with the fire and consistency we've seen thus far in the tournament, his team is going to be very hard to beat.
Is Branden Dawson the Biggest Threat to the Huskies?
Branden Dawson was one of the only Spartans to really get on track offensively against a suffocating Virginia defense Friday night at Madison Square Garden. The 6'6" sophomore came through with 24 points—he's now averaged 25 over Michigan State's last two tournament games—to lead all scorers. That performance came in the wake of 26 crucial points in a third-round win over Harvard.
Dawson flies a bit under the radar—which is easy to do on a team as talented as the Spartans—but he's a big part of his team's success. He averaged 11.4 points and 8.3 rebounds during the regular season and has upped his game with a 20-point, nine-board average in the tournament.
In a lot of ways, you can judge the Spartans' success by how he plays. Michigan State was undefeated this season in games where he scored 10 or more points. He'll need to be at that number, and probably higher, for his team to advance past a red-hot Huskies squad.
UConn will need to be mindful of Dawson if he continues his scoring hot streak.
Who Is Hotter?
Is there anything better than two powerhouse teams who are playing their best basketball of the season meeting in the Elite Eight?
There probably is, but when it comes to March Madness, this is near the pinnacle.
UConn has won six of its last seven games—with the lone loss coming to Louisville in the finals of the AAC tournament—and has already exceeded all expectations for a team making its first tournament appearance since 2012. The Huskies have already knocked off the No. 2 and No. 3 seeds in the East Region, and they have a chance to take out the No. 4 seed as well.
Michigan State might be even hotter still. After suffering through a season littered with injuries to key players, the Spartans got their act together at the right time. They reeled off three wins in three days, defeating Wisconsin and Michigan on back-to-back days to capture the Big Ten tournament championship and the champions line on many brackets.
You get the point.
Both teams are hot right now, but only one can win.
This type of game could come down to the closing seconds, and it could become a question of which team wants it more and which team gets hot with the game on the line.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.
These Huskies aren't fooling anyone at this point. They're legitimate, bona fide national title contenders, and the train is going to keep on rolling right through Michigan State.
The Huskies have picked a great time—the best time—to be playing their best basketball of the season, and right now, they're firing on all cylinders and brimming with confidence. They have the look of a team that just has "it." Like they're a team of destiny and won't be denied.
The Spartans present a few difficult stylistic matchups for the Huskies—in particular how they'll control Payne and their shooters—but it's just impossible to pick against them right now, especially playing in a virtual home game at Madison Square Garden.
Napier, Daniels and Co. will continue their somewhat improbable run, defeating Michigan State and heading to Arlington for the Huskies' first Final Four since a guy named Kemba helped them cut down the nets in 2011.
Prediction: UConn 79, Michigan State 75