Don't Sleep on the Michigan State Spartans
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by Chris Mackinder
INDIANAPOLIS – There aren't many teams with as many question marks as Michigan State. The Spartans – a preseason Final Four pick and national champion selection by The Sporting News – are one of the bracket's most intriguing enigmas.
Many feel Michigan State can reach the Final Four, a feat which would mark a fifth in eight years for Tom Izzo. But a sluggish finish that included two home losses and the fatigue factor of playing three games in 48 hours could pose problems. What does it mean? The Spartans could make a run in the tournament, but could just as easily be one-and-done.
Though Thursday's Big Ten Tournament first round win against Purdue – the Big Ten's injury-plagued last-place team – might not have been pretty, Izzo said his team showed one thing: winning in one-and-done time. MSU followed it up the next night with a 61-56 win over Illinois before fatigue plagued MSU against Iowa in Saturday's 53-48 setback.
The Spartans have three of the best twenty or so players in the country in wings Maurice Ager and Shannon Brown and power forward/center Paul Davis. The trio averages a combined 55.1 points per game. Ager is a master of the step back jumper, and it doesn't matter if it's a 15-footer or a 25-footer. Brown also can hit the three but when he drives to the hoop, defenders should just move out of the way and watch in awe as he dunks. Davis is a threat in the post but he's more dangerous because he can step out and hit 15-footers.
When the trio explodes, as they have in many games this season, Michigan State is as good as anyone in the country. The problem lies in the other two positions on the floor. Point guard Drew Neitzel is a pass-pass-pass-first point guard, which is good and bad. He's one of the conference's assist leaders but when he doesn't look for his own shot, defenders sag on the Spartans' big three. That makes it tougher for Michigan State to score, and in turn, win. When Neitzel drops in 10 points, MSU is nearly impossible to beat. He's got a great driving floater and he's very accurate behind the 3-point line ( 41.6 percent). He's also the team's best free-throw shooter (92.3 percent), which means if he drives to the hole more, the Spartans are that much more lethal.
The power forward position is the black hole. Two-sport athlete Matt Trannon is MSU's glue guy. Despite giving the Spartans an experienced body in the post – many forget Trannon was a highly touted hoops recruit coming out of high school – he brings the toughness Izzo loves. Redshirt freshman Goran Suton has matured in the past few weeks – he scored a career-high 12 points against Purdue on Thursday and grabbed a career-high 10 rebounds against the Illini on Friday – but his defense is somewhat suspect. Izzo also rotates Idong Ibok, a player with a 7-foot-5 wingspan, and Delco Rowley at the 4-spot.
Trannon broke his jaw three weeks ago and is now forced to wear a mask to protect it. But despite Izzo wanting to limit his minutes on Thursday, Trannon ended up playing 19, scoring six points to go along with four rebounds and many of the hustle plays that don't show up on the stat sheet.
"He's out there scrapping, broken jaw and all," Brown said. "He never backs down. He' diving out of bounds, going over tables for loose balls. He just brings a lot of energy."
As the tournament is approaching, the Spartans (22-11) know they're one of the more talented teams in the country. But it's the chemistry that occasionally disappears. What the Spartans are looking to do is get back to playing Spartan Basketball.
What is it?
"Spartan Basketball is going out and playing with a lot of intensity, a lot of grit, a lot of emotion, rebounding the ball," Brown said. "We've played with it in stretches but we haven't played with it as much as we'd like to this season."
The "hey-days" of Spartan Basketball were 1999-2001, when MSU went to three straight Final Fours. The likes of Mateen Cleaves, Antonio Smith, Morris Peterson, Charlie Bell, Jason Richardson gave the Spartans the athleticism and the toughness Izzo feels builds champions. And what do you know, the Spartans were national champions in 2000.
"I've made no bones about it," Izzo said. "I don't think we're as tough of a team as we've been over the years and sometimes that's just personalities. It doesn't mean we don't have some tough, competitive people. We aren't as physically or mentally tough and that's why Trannon is so valuable to us because he brings that to this team."
Toughness is what the Spartans will need to get to Indianapolis. A possible road to the Final Four goes through George Mason, North Carolina, Tennessee and Connecticut – not that Izzo would let his team look that far ahead. He realizes George Mason, with or without point guard Tony Skinn, who was suspended for punching a Hofstra player in the groin during the CAA semifinals, is a solid squad.
"The best news for me is we are playing the best defensive basketball we've played," Izzo said. "I'm very optimistic because I do like what this team has to offer… I think we're a mixed bag of nuts right now, to be honest with you."
But regardless of past results, the Spartans feel they're battle tested and anything is possible.
"People have always doubted us and questioned our intensity," Davis said Sunday. "We've gotten used to it. They didn't think we had a chance last year when he had to play Duke and Kentucky (in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight)."
A win against the Patriots likely would pit the Spartans against media darling North Carolina (assuming the Tar Heels beat Murray State in round one). On its way to the national championship last season, North Carolina beat Michigan State 87-71 in the Final Four. While the Spartans don't have the edge of playing at The Palace of Auburn Hills for the first two rounds, they got the next best thing – a short trip to Dayton, Ohio.
But does it really matter where the Spartans play in March? Izzo boasts the second best NCAA Tournament winning percentage in tournament history. His 23-7 mark (.767) is only topped by Duke's Mike Krzyzewski's 66-17 record (.795). MSU also is making its ninth-straight NCAA Tournament appearance, trailing just Arizona (22), Kansas (17), Kentucky (15) and Duke (11).
Immediately after the bracket was announced, CBS announcer Billy Packer said MSU is "the toughest No. 6 seed that's been in the tournament in a long, long time."
Now the Spartans will try and prove him right.