Steve Smith is one of the many MSU basketball legends who have made this time of year so enjoyable for Spartan fans. In 1990, the two-time former First Team All-American led MSU to the Big Ten title and a trip to the Sweet 16. As a senior in 1991, Smith hit the game-winning shot with time winding down to avoid a first-round upset against Wisconsin-Green Bay.
Now, Smith analyzes the game instead of playing, and he certainly knows about the magic and excitement of the NCAA Tournament. On Monday, Smith was down in Atlanta with Dove Men + Care and Turner Sports to celebrate National Bracket Day with a massive interactive bracket where fans can stop by and fill out their own bracket onsite. More National Bracket Day celebrations will take place at onsite hubs in Chicago, Washington D.C., Los Angeles and New York City. Visit dovemencare.com for more information.
Smith was making the media rounds on Monday, and he took some time to talk with what I can only assume is his favorite Michigan State sports blog (I have no proof of this, but c'mon. It's pretty obvious.)
TOC: First and foremost, what did you make of this weekend's Big Ten tournament? Is it safe to say this is finally the Michigan State we've all been waiting for and expected this season?
Steve Smith: It was a great tournament. I thought Ohio State played very well. Michigan had a nice tournament. They were good all year and had a Big Ten championship in the regular season outright. And then there's Michigan State, which was the darling of the preseason. Some had them ranked anywhere from 1, 2 or 3. Unfortunately for Tom Izzo and his group, they were unhealthy. There were a couple games they didn't play well when they were healthy, but you can see right now why people picked them maybe 1 or 2 in the preseason. Unbelievable talent. Unbelievable blend of bigs and smalls and experience. And obviously you also give the edge to teams that also have great coaching and experience. Tom Izzo's one of those guys, one of those coaches that can get it done. It's kind of his time. This is where his teams start to peak. I think also now, in a way they weren't healthy, but a lot of those guys played a lot of major minutes because they were out. Now they're starting to get their timing. You want to catch lightning in a bottle with momentum and confidence. I think beating Michigan and winning that Big Ten Conference tournament really has Michigan State primed to have a long run.
At full strength now, what are you expecting from Michigan State in the tournament?
With any team, wherever you're ranked, that first game kind of sets the tone, how you play that game. It's not about blowing out an opponent. It's just seeing if you can still be in that same kind of rhythm in that first game, when there's those first jitters. So I look at Michigan State after that first game to see if they can come out with a victory and still playing at that high level, playing the game the right way, because you're going to get a team's best when you're a high seed. A lot of times you have to take that first punch and see the way they react.
For them, they've been through so much. So I think they're battle tested, and give Tom Izzo a lot of credit. He's kind of been one that started that he'll play anybody, anywhere, anytime. Their non-conference schedule has been one of the best as far as strength of schedule of anybody in the country in the last 10-15 years. That bodes well, because they've played everybody.
You know what this time of year is all about as someone who's been through it with the Spartans. As a player, what are your emotions like heading into the NCAA Tournament, especially with a team like Michigan State that has some pretty lofty expectations now?
There's definitely pressure. When you're a No. 1 seed like I was one year, we came really, really close to losing to Murray State. As a No. 1 seed, there's a lot of pressure. But I just think overall, as a student-athlete playing in the Dance or March Madness, it's an unbelievable feeling. Everybody comes out and supports you. You have the pep rallies, and you spend a lot of time together with some of your teammates that end up being your closes friends forever. You get a chance to win some games and lose some games, but you never forget it.
I also think it's totally different when you become a senior. You start looking at, '"This could be my last game in college." Preparation amps up, attention to detail amps up, and then emotionally, you got to kind of hold it in as a senior when you're playing in that last March Madness.
Tell me a little bit about National Bracket Day and how you're involved with that.
I'm getting a chance to do some media and work with Dove Men + Care to talk about National Bracket Day. We have a huge bracket down here at CNN. You'll get a chance to see it, I'm sure social media will be Tweeting it out. Just being involved and giving some of my expertise. We all become experts when it comes to March Madness, whether you played the game, you're on television talking about it or if you're sitting at your cubicle or at home. We all become experts on which teams are going to advance and eventually win the National Championship.
Speaking of that, do you have any Final Four and National Championship predictions?
Not yet. I'm still waiting to fill out my bracket. I'd rather tell you to look out for some teams like Oklahoma. Look out for a team like Stephen F. Austin. Unfortunately for Ohio State, they're playing Dayton. Anytime you play an in-state rival, I would say Dayton has looked up to the giants Ohio State. A lot of those kids probably wanted to get recruited by Ohio State, so they'll a lot of energy playing against Ohio State. Those are some of the games I would look out for.
For anyone filling out a bracket, what are some of the most important traits a team can have that will likely lead to success in March?
No, traits or qualities.
Oh, I was like, "What, trades in college?" That's what we should start. You can trade one player a year.
I think for one, you want to have experience. I think that helps out so much. You've been there, you've done that. You understand the extra stuff like ticket requests.
I think a second trait is, you have to be able to defend and rebound. And also, you have to have the type of team that might not be playing well but can win ugly. You can win a game when you're not shooting the basketball well and things aren't clicking.
Then I think an extra edge is having a coach who's been there and done that and can look across the table and say, "Hey, I got a couple plays I know can work against this team" to keep confident and keep the group confident.