As Michigan State sits at the third spot in Big Ten standings and just outside of the top-25 teams in the AP and USA Today Coaches polls, the Spartans have all but secured an NCAA tournament bid. In regards to the Big Ten tournament this week, Michigan State is among five Big Ten teams merely looking to improve their seeding in the Big Dance. The other teams include Wisconsin, Maryland, Ohio State and Iowa.
As a top four team, No. 3 Michigan State gets a huge advantage in the tournament as it has a bye in the first and second rounds, jumping the Spartans directly to the quarterfinals. They will face either Ohio State, Minnesota or Rutgers. No. 6 seeded Ohio State will play the winner of No.11 Minnesota and No. 14 Rutgers on Thursday at nine o'clock.
Minnesota and Rutgers only played each other once this season. In Minneapolis, the Gophers came up on top with an 89-80 victory. Naturally, they are favored to win the tournament matchup.
During the regular season, the Buckeyes traveled to face off with each team once. In Minneapolis, Ohio State pulled out a two point overtime win over the Gophers, while in Piscataway, the Buckeyes topped the Scarlet Knights by a comfortable 19 points.
Michigan State lost to Minnesota at home in overtime, while the Spartans took a 20 point victory at Rutgers. However, with the season Thad Matta's team is having, Ohio State should get past its second round game without a problem, which would mean it would be a Buckeyes and Spartans quarterfinal on Friday.
This would be one of the more unpredictable games of the Big Ten tournament.
Michigan State has won six of its last eight games of the regular season, including the overtime loss at home to Minnesota and a down to the wire win at Indiana. The Buckeyes have won three of their last four games. Ohio State traveled to East Lansing on February 14. The Spartans outscored the Buckeyes by three points to take the victory.
A semi-final matchup would most likely be against Maryland,
A noticeable issue for Michigan State over the course of the season is its reliance on Branden Dawson, Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine. The three standouts averaged a combined 40.9 points per game for the Spartans. When these three fail to show up with big numbers, it has only caused trouble for Tom Izzo's team. At Wisconsin, the trio only contributed 30 points, many of which came later in the second half. In addition, four other Spartans went scoreless, while Alvin Ellis III scored 2. Granted, this was against a close to uncontested Badger team that is fighting to make its case for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but, a similar situation occurred when the Spartans lost to Illinois in East Lansing. Because these three have been such heavy contributors, without the support of its leading scorers, the Spartans struggle to make up for it in other ways. Should this trend continue, it will lead to trouble for Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament and beyond.
Overall, clearly the biggest challenge to Michigan State in their immediate path is Ohio State. Though the Spartans lost to Minnesota earlier this season, the Buckeyes have far more talent and D'Angelo Russell has the ability to get his team to hang with anybody if he is playing well. It would be a major challenge for the Spartans and considering how well the Buckeyes have played in the Big Ten Tournament under Thad Matta and how close the first game was this year, all bets are off on who would win this time. Still, perhaps the extra day of rest for the Spartans could bode well and they would move on.
Should Michigan State beat the Buckeyes, it would face Maryland. The Terps beat the Spartans 75-59 in College Park on January 17, but the first game went to overtime and was very competitive. A third game would be a welcome addition and considering how close Maryland has played its last few games, perhaps the Spartans could pull off the win in the Big Ten Tournament. If they did, a likely matchup with Wisconsin would await, but even advancing to the final would do wonders for the team's resume.
The Spartans look to have a challenging path in this year's Big Ten Tournament and will likely have to get through Maryland and Ohio State to reach the final, but the good news is that it appears their NCAA Tournament bid is already secured.