We‘ve come to it at last, the NCAA Men‘s Basketball Tournament 2019 – one of the greatest sports tournaments in the entire world is upon us and everyone is awaiting a few weeks of tremendous matchups, thrilling upsets and amazing last second finishes. Short: March Madness is here! It‘s hard to put into words what kind of fascination this tournament possesses, it truly is the perfect storm for a college basketball fan. The Michigan State Spartans are looking to put the finishing touches on a season that started with relatively moderate hopes yet so far has exceeded even the most wild expectations. Tom Izzo‘s team maneuvered through a big roster turnaround and a barrage of injuries to now being able to call themselves Big Ten regular season and Tournament champions. Despite many people giving up on the year (including myself for a moment) midseason they fought back with incredible and amazing heart and resiliancy. As great as these accomplishments are, for now they are left in the rearview mirror and we set our sights on the “Big Dance”.
How does the draw look?
Michigan State ended up with the 2nd Seed in the East Region and will meet the Bradley Braves in the round of 64. Most initial reactions though didn‘t really concern themselves with the Missouri Valley Conference champions but rather with the region‘s number one seed, the vaunted Duke Blue Devils and their manchild freshman Zion Williamson. The general consensus was that MSU got the short end of the stick and dealt a tough draw by facing the Blue Devils. It felt like they not only weren‘t rewarded for their two championships or their incredible performance throughout the year but also placed in the toughest spot out of the four number two seeds. Many experts have commented on it, Tom Izzo has voiced his displeasure and overall there is plenty of reason to wonder about the selection commitee‘s inconsistency.
I don‘t want to get down that road though because in the end it is of no help. We all know there is plenty wrong with the selection process and there are factors away from the court that dictate a lot of stuff. Whoever tells you otherwise, ignore that person politely. As MSU enters its 22nd consecutive tournament though we should remind ourselves that overall things are pretty well in Spartan country. This program prides itself on playing anyone anywhere, so this year‘s tournament draw should be business as usual.
And first of all that means dealing with the Braves, who enter their first NCAAs in 13 years. They‘ve beaten former March cinderella Northern Iowa (Ali Farokhmanesh anyone?) in their conference tournament championship game after a big second half comeback. It was needed though since Bradley only managed 15 points in the first half of that game. Not many people give these guys a shot after going 20-14 overall for the year and lacking big out of conference wins (sorry Penn State). But Brian Wardle‘s team is a resilient bunch, not only because of their bid sealing heroics last week. They also started their conference slate with five losses yet managed to right the ship later on to even their record. They are also unbeaten whenever Wardle‘s wears some moderately attractive red slippers apparently. With that said, they are ranked 165th in KenPom with an offense rated in the 240s. I guess you could say that you have to like the matchup for the 4th ranked Spartans defense.
Does MSU have what it takes to cut down the nets in Minneapolis?
Even if March Madness presents us with plenty of surprises and things nobody can predict every year, history still teaches us a lot and gives a glimpse of what you need in order to keep winning in the Big Dance. Let‘s take a look at how Michigan State stacks up in regard to the most important factors for March success. In the last ten years the eventual national champions had plenty of things in common, mostly things are thrown around forever as March mantras anyway.
Does MSU have good enough guard play?
It has been said for many decades now and anyone of us could rattle down a long list of former guards who became legends in March. A team will certainly run into tight contests and dramatic late game situations when it‘s good to have a lead guard who knows what he‘s doing. It can actually be the deciding factor for winning a championship, as plenty of winners in the last ten years have relied heavily on their superstar playmakers. Joel Berry, Ty Lawson (both North Carolina), Shabazz Napier, Kemba Walker (both UConn) or Jalen Brunson (Villanova) are all great examples for playmakers who played a huge part in their teams‘ title runs.
Ever heard of someone named Cassius Winston? Michigan State‘s point guard fits the picture of the dangerous March playmaker almost to a tee. Throughout the entire year the Big Ten Player Of The Year has loaded the team on his back and put together one of the most impressive seasons in Michigan State history. The All American is anything you want from a leader, a silent assassion who isn‘t afraid to take the big shot and will not back down from any challenge. I guess Michigan State has that box checked off pretty well.
Does MSU have enough senior leadership?
It‘s always good to have veteran players in March, guys who have stood side by side for many years and know what it takes to win. Seniors can rise their level of play significantly with their final career games looming (Matt McQuaid is a perfect example) and that can go a long way in the Tournament. Five of the last six national champions featured atleast four upperclassmen in their starting five, the lone outlier being Duke in 2015. That team though not only had a tremendous amount of freshman talent (Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow) but also could call on a great veteran floor general in Quinn Cook, who might have been their most important player actually.
Michigan State is starting two seniors in Kenny Goins and Matt McQuaid plus they also have a junior starter in Winston. Even if injuries to Josh Langford and (likely) Kyle Ahrens (FOR ARNIE!) have robbed Tom Izzo of two veteran players, overall the Spartans are very experienced. Goins and McQuaid are the lone seniors but it has to be noted that playing at Michigan State for numerous years gives you more exposure and experience than you get at most other programs in the country. Every year MSU‘s kids are playing a big time out of conference schedule, they always reach the NCAA Tournament, they play a highly competitive conference (the best in the country this season) and overall have seen a lot more than many other players.
Does MSU have enough balance?
Teams that do well in March are usually balanced, meaning they possess both a good defense and a good offense (even more important). You always have outliers of course (like defensive minded South Carolina reaching the Final Four in 2017) but in general a well rounded team makeup is the key. Except for UConn in 2011 (19th) and 2014 (39th) every national champion had a top ten offense according to KenPom alongside a top 20 defense.
Michigan State is also checking off that box with flying colors as the Spartans rank 4th overall in KenPom, have the 4th ranked offense and the 8th ranked defense. They accomplished those rankings by playing a very tough schedule and overall should be able to hold up in both a defensive struggle or a shootout.
Does MSU have enough NBA talent?
All recent national champions had a bevy of future pros on their rosters, in some cases even numerous future lottery picks (for example Kentucky in 2012 or Duke in 2015). While it isn‘t a guarentee for anything to suit future NBA players as many teams have learned, it certainly helps to have a lot of talent. There is no question about it.
Michigan State might struggle a bit in that regard. Even its superstar in Cassius Winston, who is as a great a college player as you can find, could be considered a longshot to make it in the NBA for his lack of size and athletisism. Nick Ward and Xavier Tillman might find a spot in the league one day but neither of them is a lock. MSU‘s best NBA prospect on this team might be freshman Aaron Henry (or fellow rookie Marcus Bingham who isn‘t part of the rotation yet) and even he has a lot to learn and won‘t think about the next level in the foreseeable future.
Is Michigan State matchup-proof?
Whenever the Tournament is coming around the corner a lot will depend on matchups. Countless better teams have lost games in the past because their inferior opponents were a terrible matchup for them. That can happen to the best programs and sometimes also on a given night. So what you look for in a March contender is that they do not have a definite kryptonite and can win a game in different ways. MSU certainly can do the latter. The Big Ten always teaches them to grind out wins, they can hold up in a physical battle, they love to run and don‘t mind a game going up and down (though you have to wonder how much they do it with the shortened rotation). They also have numerous ways to score on offense (post offense, set plays, outside shooting, transition) and shouldn‘t fall off the cliff when one part of their game gets taken away.
So what is MSU‘s “bad matchup?” I think the one team that the Spartans don‘t want to face is a long team that can outathlete them. At certain points in the season MSU has had problems keeping opponents off the offensive glass (unusual for them historically) and against a squad with numerous bouncy athletes that could become a major problem. Length and athletisism might also be the one thing that could bother Cassius Winston over the course of 40 minutes. Another issue for MSU could arise when a team gets ultra aggressive and pressures them on the perimeter. It has bothered the Spartans on and off for quite some time now when they can‘t easily get into their offensive sets and struggle to even pass the ball around the perimeter. Turnovers have been a recurring issue and with MSU usually being a much better team percentage wise from the floor (due to their shooting and their great defense) a lesser number of shots could be a big equalizer.
With that said though, even if there certainly will be teams that present MSU with problems, Izzo and his men have plenty of ammunition to counter.
So, can MSU win it all?
They certainly can as the numbers and the makeup of their roster indicate. They basically got everything you need in order to be successful in March and top of that also have a certain Hall Of Fame coach who might know a thing or two about basketball. Izzo also seems to have a very tight connection to this year‘s group of players and a relationship with them that could propel them to new heights in the tournament. We‘ve seen it before. Depth is certainly a big question mark, especially at certain positions, and some freshmen like Gabe Brown and Foster Loyer could be in line for bigger roles than originally planned. It is remarkable that this team has found as many ways to win over the course of the year as they did and that their tank (and especially Cassius Winston‘s) never seemed to run empty. Physically, mentally and emotionally though it was a very draining season, let‘s hope that fatigue isn‘t setting in at the worst possible time. I think though the emotion of the Tournament will overcome all that once again.
So let the games begin and let the madness come upon everyone else! Even though it would be pretty crazy if MSU actually gets to the Final Four after everything they had to go through all season long. GO GREEN!