Scouting Michigan State's path in the NCAA Tournament: Does a Trojan surprise await in Round 1?
Tom Izzo made history Sunday when Michigan State received its 25th straight NCAA Tournament invitation, giving the future Hall of Famer the all-time Division I record for the most consecutive appearances by one coach at a single school. Was the 2023 season a down one? Maybe by Izzo’s standards. After all, this is Sparty we’re talking about. Middle-tier seasons aren’t supposed to happen in East Lansing, and a 19-12 record certainly falls in that category.
While the Spartans can’t change the past, they can create a clear path through the East Region to make it to NRG Stadium in Houston come March 31. After earning the No. 7 seed, Michigan State is now set to face No. 10-seed USC in the first round. And while the Spartans and Trojans nearly destroyed their civilizations for the beauty of Helen, Friday’s showdown might come with less drama if one team pulls ahead early.
Here’s a look at the Trojans and a prediction of how far the Spartans will advance:
The Trojans (22-10, 14-6 Pac-12) finished 3rd in their conference’s regular season standings, trailing only Arizona and UCLA. After falling behind in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament to Arizona State, USC couldn’t recover despite scoring 47 points in the 2nd half, losing 77-72.
How the Trojans got here: After early season losses to Tennessee and Wisconsin, the Trojans found their rhythm once conference player began. They rattled off 7 consecutive wins, including victories over then-No. 19 Auburn and Washington. Following a pair of mid-season losses to Oregon and Oregon State, the Trojans picked up wins over Cal, Stanford, Colorado and Utah.
USC won 5 of its last 7 games to strengthen its chances of garnering a higher seed. The Trojans also played close against the big boys of the conference, losing to then-No. 10 UCLA by 2 points in early January and then-No. 8 Arizona by 6 in early March.
Top player: Senior guard Boogie Ellis leads the team in points (18.0 per game). He ranks second in assists (3.0), minutes (33.1), steals (1.4) and field goal percentage (43.9%) among the starters. The 6-3, 185-pounder can do a bit of everything, but he’s at his best when driving toward the rim. He earned first-team All-Pac-12 status after going on a tear in conference play. In his final 5 regular season games, Ellis recorded 20 or more points 4 times, including a season-high 35 against the Wildcats. He shot 44.6% from the field and was 45.9% from the 3-point line during that span.
What they do best: The Trojans are consistent. They don’t rank near the bottom of any category, often finding themselves in the top half when it comes to points (72.8), rebounds (35.3), field goal percentage (45.7%) and assists (13.4). Their most significant advantage comes with size. USC leads the Pac-12 in blocks per game (5.2) thanks to the surplus of talent around the rim. Kobe Johnson (6-foot-6), Drew Peterson (6-9), Joshua Morgan (6-11) and Vincent Iwuchukwu (7-1) all stand over 6-foot-5 and average at least 0.4 blocks per outing, with Morgan leading the way at 2.3
Best win this season: It would have to be the home victory over then-No. 8 UCLA. Already an in-state rivalry (and perhaps an in-city one, for that matter), the Trojans proved their worth as a conference sleeper. After being down by 12 at the half, USC’s offense exploded, scoring 52 points en route to a 77-64 victory in late January. Ellis finished with a team-high 31 points, while Peterson and Johnson totaled 16 and 10 points, respectively.
That might be USC’s proudest win, but it’s not the only one worth mentioning. The Trojans also handled business against top-25 opponents such as then-No. 19 Auburn. They also played close against 2022 SEC champion Tennessee, forcing the game to overtime, but ultimately fell short as part of the Bad Boy Mowers Battle 4 Atlantis.
Most important thing to know about the Trojans: The duo of Ellis and Peterson is deadly when all things are clicking. If Peterson leads the team in points, 9 times out of 10, Ellis is leading in assists. If Ellis is scoring, Peterson is down low using his size to box out opponents for the quick rebound. The two lead USC in nearly every offensive category and are shooting over 43% from the field. It’s also best to keep a close eye on Reese Dixon-Waters as the “third guy.” In 4 of his last 6 contests, Dixon-Waters has scored 12 points or more while shooting 46.7% from the field.
Prediction: USC averages just 6.5 made 3-pointers per game on 34.5% accuracy (165th in the nation). Michigan State makes 7.5 per game. The Trojans average 35.3 rebounds per game. The Spartans average 35.7. This really comes down to consistency inside the paint. Can Michigan State shoot better than 45% from the field and match USC’s 45.7%? Can Sparty capitalize on easy points thanks to turnovers and create breakaways off of steals?
If so, give me the Spartans to break off late in the 2nd half. In 3 of its last 4 wins, Michigan State has won the turnover battle and scored more points in the final 20 minutes than its opponent.
Michigan State 71, USC 67
Beyond the opener
With a win, Michigan State would advance to a likely meeting with No. 2-seed Marquette (28-6 and ranked No. 6 in the latest AP and Coaches polls). The Golden Eagles are flying high under 2nd-year coach Shaka Smart, who might end up winning Coach of the Year for the quick turnaround in Milwaukee. Marquette currently ranks 4th nationally in assists (17.6 per game), 9th in steals (9.4 per game), 19th in scoring (79.9 points per game), and 45th in 3-pointers made (8.9 per game).
Maybe the Spartans have the experience to make a deep run? After all, Izzo has been to the tournament 25 consecutive times, and has made it to the Round of 32 4 of the last 6 seasons. Even with a roster that’s been less than stellar in terms of offensive production, sometimes it just takes the path to show fans the light.
Even if Michigan State fails to make it past the first game, at least Spartan Nation can celebrate the fact that Izzo now has the record for what could be called program stability. That, or question if the 68-year-old still is the right fit for the program.
Never a dull moment in East Lansing, right?