In a strange way, this year’s Michigan State basketball team has almost flown under the radar nationally. Maybe it’s because of the early loss to Kansas in the Champions Classic, a major national showcase; perhaps it’s because for a while, Michigan - not Michigan State - looked like the best team in the Big Ten, and possibly the country. Perhaps it’s even due to the relatively strong SEC sapping some of the attention that ordinarily goes to the Big Ten. Whatever the case, it’s rare that a Tom Izzo-led team this good generates so few headlines and so little attention beyond East Lansing.
Despite all that, Michigan State is in a very good position as we inch closer to March Madness, with a strong shot at a 2-seed and a clear ability to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. The Spartans will be a good team and a tough out during March Madness. However, they also won’t quite be a tournament favorite, at least among most analysts and fans, which is another way of saying they could absolutely be beaten. The question is, by whom?
The answer to that question, in March, is always the same: anybody. Any tournament team can beat any other once the tournament gets started, as demonstrated last year when, for the first time ever, a 16-seed (UMBC) beat a 1-seed (Virginia). If we’re looking at more likely teams that could knock off Michigan State though, or teams that would appear to be particularly difficult matchups for the Spartans, a few schools come to mind.
In addition to being a very, very good overall team and one of the true National Championship favorites, Virginia presents some specific issues for Michigan State. To begin with, the Cavaliers very nearly lead the nation in fewest turnovers per game, at just 9.4; Michigan State, meanwhile, struggles to force turnovers to begin with, indicating Virginia might have a chance to completely control the pace of this hypothetical matchup. Additionally, Michigan State relies fairly heavily on 3-point shooting, yet Virginia has some of the best defense in this category in the country, meaning it could potentially neutralize the Spartans’ biggest would-be advantage. Cassius Winston is one of the few guards in the country as good as Virginia’s duo of Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy, but without Joshua Langford alongside him, even Winston might have trouble keeping up. Virginia is certainly a team the Spartans don’t want to see in March.
The shine has come off of Michigan a little bit from a month or so ago. It’s clear that the Wolverines have some offensive issues, and may lack consistency in general. However, they were included as a team to considerin championship betting at a basketball wagering platform recently for good reason. The Wolverines have one of the best defenses in the country, an excellent, tournament-tested coach in John Beilein, and one of the best heart-and-soul, made-for-March type of players you’ll see this season in do-it-all forward Ignas Brazdeikis. We can’t yet say too much about how Michigan State matches up in particular because the teams still have to play twice this regular season. However, Michigan’s strength plus the extra tension of a rivalry scenario make Michigan a tricky potential opponent in a Final Four down the road.
Duke seems to be a mismatch for Michigan State more often than not, as shown in Izzo’s much-talked-about poor record versus the Blue Devils. This year probably isn’t an exception. Not only do most see Duke as the nation’s best team at full strength, but the Blue Devils have some strengths that can nullify what would be advantages for the Spartans against most teams. For instance, Michigan State is one of the best defensive rebounding teams in the country, yet Duke excels on the offensive boards, making this a potential wash (and maybe even a straight-up advantage for Duke if Nick Ward isn’t back on the court for Michigan State by March). Cassius Winston is Michigan State’s best player by a fairly wide margin, yet Duke point guard Tre Jones has shown an incredible ability to bottle up star guards The Blue Devils quite simply have the ability to make things very difficult for Michigan State. And if Zion Williamson is at full strength, as it appears he will be following an injury scare, the Spartans have no answer for him.
Identifying Virginia, Michigan and Duke isn’t exactly bold given that all three will be among the title favorites this March. Villanova isn’t quite on that tier, however, yet is one among the 3-, 4-, or 5-seeds that the Spartans should be wary of. Fresh off a second title in four years, the Wildcats have been difficult to figure this season. They won 11 games in a row into conference play but have since dropped three of four, including a recent upset at the hands of Georgetown. One thing that’s become clear is that Villanova has trouble winning when not hitting its 3-point shots. However, they typically do make those shots, about as much as anyone in the country - and Michigan State has very weak 3-point defense. That can be a bad recipe, and makes Villanova the kind of second-tier team the Spartans may not want to run into.
It could still be a terrific season for Michigan State, and the way the team has played, a national title is on the table, particularly if Ward returns. There will always be some matchups tougher than the rest though, and any of the four teams above could prove tricky for Izzo and Co.
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