Cassius Winston, Michigan St. Deny Bradley's Upset Bid, Advance in March Madness

Adam Wells@adamwells1985Featured ColumnistMarch 21, 2019

DES MOINES, IOWA - MARCH 21: Cassius Winston #5 of the Michigan State Spartans drives with the ball against Elijah Childs #10 of the Bradley Braves during their game in the First Round of the NCAA Basketball Tournament at Wells Fargo Arena on March 21, 2019 in Des Moines, Iowa. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Michigan State overcame a slow start in the 2019 NCAA men's tournament Thursday to earn a hard-fought 76-65 win over Bradley. 

The Spartans came into the big dance with high expectations after being seeded No. 2 in the East Region. The last time Tom Izzo's team started the tournament seeded second was in 2016 when they were stunned by Middle Tennessee in the first round. 

Cassius Winston carried the load for Michigan State's offense. The Big Ten Player of the Year finished with 26 points. Xavier Tillman chipped in with a double-double of 15 points and 11 rebounds. 

Elijah Childs had 19 points and six rebounds in defeat for Bradley. 

Injury Woes Will End Up Being Michigan St.'s Ultimate Demise 

It's a testament to head coach Tom Izzo and the volume of talent he's put together that this Michigan State team was able to win the Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles. 

The Spartans accomplished that with Joshua Langford suffering a foot injury that ended his season after 13 games, Nick Ward being limited in four games since returning from a hairline fracture in his hand, and Kyle Ahrens sidelined with a sprained ankle. 

That lack of depth showed throughout the first half when Michigan State was held to 34 points on 11-of-30 shooting. Winston was the only player with more than four points in the first 20 minutes. 

Backlash against the Spartans was percolating after that start:

Neil W. Blackmon @nwblackmon

Death, Taxes, Tom Izzo in March unless his team is a pre-tournament darling that feels aggrieved about not being a 1 seed.

Things seemed to turn around at the start of the second half when Michigan State went on a 10-0 run to take a five-point lead. But even then the celebration was muted because Izzo was unhappy with Aaron Henry during a timeout:

Brad Galli @BradGalli

Tom Izzo was screaming at Aaron Henry. Cassius Winston physically holding Izzo back as he yelled.

It didn't help matters that Bradley refused to go away, scoring eight straight points to take a 51-50 lead midway through the second half. 

There were a number of reasons the Spartans struggled to look like themselves in this game. Bradley is an outstanding defensive team, finishing 31st in points allowed per game (65.0) and allowing opponents to shoot 32.8 percent from three-point range. 

But the bigger issue for Michigan State on this day and moving forward in the tournament is how to combat its overall lack of depth because of injuries to key players. 

The Spartans were able to figure things out down the stretch in the regular season and Big Ten tournament with five straight wins coming into the NCAA tournament, including two against Michigan during that stretch. 

Even though Bradley came up short, Izzo needs to figure out how to make the talent he still has work together in their quest for a title. If he can't do it quickly, the Spartans will be sent home before reaching the second weekend of the tournament for the fourth straight year. 

Bradley Will Be Back For Revenge Next March

The Braves are going to look back on this game a lot over the next year, but head coach Brian Wardle has to feel good about what his team can accomplish in 2019-20. 

They proved throughout Thursday's game they are capable of hanging with one of the nation's premier programs on the biggest stage in the sport. 

Childs had a star-making turn against the Spartans with his play on both ends of the floor. 

CBS Sports @CBSSports

Elijah Childs is putting it ON Michigan State. https://t.co/b3OLQqunPk

Senior Luqman Lundy showed his defensive skill set against Winston in the first half:

Bleacher Report @BleacherReport

No. 15 Bradley showing no fear against Michigan State 😤 #MarchMadness https://t.co/ZrSNtjfqL6

Even though the end result wasn't what Bradley wanted, the team is poised to have a revenge tour next season. 

The Braves' top three scorers—Brown, Childs, Nate Kennell—all have at least one more year of eligibility remaining. They can play shutdown defense, as evidenced by limiting Michigan State to 42.6 percent shooting overall (5-of-19 from three-point range). 

Wardle, who just completed his fourth season with the program, has Bradley headed in the right direction. The Braves won 20 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2007-09. 

This season marked Bradley's first NCAA tournament appearance since 2005-06. Based on what the team accomplished all season and against Michigan State, it won't have to wait 13 years before getting a chance at redemption. 

What's Next?

Michigan State will take on No. 10 Minnesota Saturday with a berth in the Sweet 16 on the line.