Starting with Sweet 16 matchup with Kansas State, Michigan State looks to boldly go where no team has gone before
Michigan State earned a No. 7 seed in the NCAA Tournament despite 12 losses, including a 1-and-done exit from the Big Ten Tournament courtesy of sub-.500 Ohio State.
A couple weeks earlier, the Spartans gave up more than 100 points in regulation in a 112-106 overtime loss to Iowa. They entered the Big Dance on a run of mediocrity that included 8 losses in 15 games.
Yet the Selection Committee seemingly had no doubt the Spartans belonged, and they proved worthy with decisive victories over USC and No. 2 seed Marquette.
Michigan State gained its bid on reputation and potential, deservedly getting benefit of the doubt based on a history under Tom Izzo that includes 25 consecutive NCAA Tournament invites and 15 appearances during that span in the Sweet 16.
In his 40th season on the MSU sideline and 28th as head coach, Izzo knows how to push the right buttons this time of year. While the other 7 B1G entrants — including East Region No. 1 seed Purdue — sit home and watch, the Spartans will face No. 3 seed Kansas State in the opening tipoff of the Sweet 16 Thursday evening at Madison Square Garden in New York City.
The path to a 9th Final Four under Izzo looks imminently doable, as the Spartans (21-12) are listed as 1- to 2-point favorites over the Wildcats (25-9). Purdue — which beat MSU twice during the B1G regular season — is out of the way, courtesy of No. 16 seed Fairleigh Dickinson. If it advances to the Elite Eight, MSU would face either No. 4 seed Tennessee or No. 9 seed Florida Atlantic on Saturday.
But first things first. The Thursday night showdown (6:30 ET, TBS) is being billed as a battle of guards Tyson Walker and K-State’s Markquis Nowell, both New York natives. Walker, MSU’s leading scorer (14.8 ppg) in his 2nd season since transferring from Northeastern University, is coming off a 23-point game against Marquette. Nowell, at 5-8 and 160 pounds a diminutive and quick senior, lit up Kentucky for 27 points to get the Wildcats to the regional semis.
Nowell will present a challenge for Walker and backcourt mate AJ Hoggard after not only shooting 7-of-14 with 3 3-pointers in a 75-69 win over Kentucky, but also getting to the line for 11 attempts and sinking 10 of them. The Spartans will also have to deal with 6-6 senior Keyontae Johnson, the Wildcats’ leading scorer (17.5 ppg) and rebounder (7.0 rpg). Johnson rates as perhaps the top feel-good story of the tournament, as the former Florida Gator returned to action this season after missing almost 2 full seasons recovering from a medical condition that caused him to collapse on the court in a game against Florida State in December of 2020.
Johnson and Nowell seem perfectly healthy now, having played a combined 79 of 80 possible minutes against Kentucky.
Michigan State will counter with its own brand of toughness, which seems to now include a tenacious commitment to defense that Izzo has lamented seemed to come and go before the Madness of March arrived.
Coughing up 101 points in regulation to Iowa on Feb. 25, including 59 in the 2nd half, seems like a distant memory now. The Spartans held USC to 62 points in a 10-point opening round win, then held Shaka Smart’s Big East regular-season and tourney champs to 60 — 19 below their season average. Sparty beat the Golden Eagles despite shooting 2-of-16 on 3s, prevailing by winning on the glass (36-31), getting to the line (19-of-23 vs. 9-of-14), blocking shots (3 vs. Marquette’s 0) and forcing 16 turnovers — including 9 steals. It held the Golden Eagles to under 40% shooting, including a dreadful 9-of-25 on 2-point tries.
It was a commitment to defense that had Izzo welling with tears in the postgame interview. If Michigan State can do that to a No. 2 seed and trendy pick to cut down the nets April 3 in Houston, it should be able to do it to Kansas State and anybody else.
With senior forward Joey Hauser and junior center Mady Sissoko both going 6-foor-9 and senior Malik Hall at 6-8, Michigan boasts one of the biggest front courts left in the tournament. Sophomore Jaden Atkins (6-4), averaging 8.5 points and 2 steals through 2 tournament games, fortifies the back court.
The offense, too, has been coming together, the rough 3-point shooting notwithstanding. Hauser is averaging 16.7 points over his past 6 games. Over that same stretch, Walker is averaging 18.3 and Hoggard 13.7 plus 6.5 assists.
And the 3s should start falling again, given that Sparty ranks 8th in the country in accuracy from beyond the arc (38.74%).
Add that all up, and it’s apparent Michigan State is built for this time of year, this year like every year.
Getting to Houston for the Final Four wouldn’t be a major surprise at this point. And once there, anything can happen, including Michigan State’s (and the Big Ten’s) first national championship since 2000. That would be truly historic, even for an Izzo-coached squad, because no team with 12 losses has ever taken the crown.
In fact, nothing near that crazy has happened since the 1980s, when, as you’ll recall …
- Kansas, aka Danny Manning and the Miracles, won in 1988 as an 11-loss No. 6 seed.
- Villanova upset Georgetown in 1985 as a 10-loss No. 8 seed, the lowest seed to ever win it all. It was the first year the field was expanded to 64 teams.
- Jim Valvano’s NC State won in 1983 as a 10-loss No. 6 seed. The field had 52 teams that year.
No team with double-digit losses has won the title before or since, and UConn in 2014 is the only No. 7 seed to go all the way in the 38 seasons since the field has had 64 or more teams.
In his Hall of Fame career, the 68-year-old Izzo has amassed quite the resume. The Spartans have a shot to add yet another bullet point, and they might just be tough enough to pull it off.