Michigan State fans are running out of time to find truTV on their cable or satellite systems, because No. 7 Sparty opens up NCAA Tournament play against No. 10 Georgia at 11:40 a.m. CT on Friday. With the way Tom Izzo's team has been playing lately, a trip to the Sweet Sixteen and beyond isn't out of the question. However, there are many perils ahead, not the least of which is a Georgia squad that is hungry for its first win at the big dance since 2002.
The Bulldogs will be five-point underdogs to the Spartans, who had a great chance to take home the Big Ten Tournament championship before a late Wisconsin surge turned them into runners-up in overtime. For Michigan State to bounce back and make a run on the national stage, it must get big performances out of the big three of Travis Trice, Denzel Valentine, and Branden Dawson while getting help from its deep bench.
Like Wisconsin, Georgia plays a patient defensive style that concentrates more on taking away open shots than forcing lots of turnovers. The Spartans must be patient and use the entire shot clock to open up shots or they could end up disappointed again. In the Big Ten final, Michigan State shot 51 percent from the field and 6-for-14 from beyond the arc, but also turned the ball over 13 times, which is too many against a Badger team that isn't eager to steal the ball.
On offense, Georgia depends on a lot on the penetration of Charles Mann and J.J. Frazier opening up opportunities for Kenny Gaines and Nemanja Djurisic on the perimeter. While Djurisic is an NBA-style stretch four, Marcus Thornton is your more traditional post presence who draws fouls, collects rebounds, and leads the Bulldogs in scoring with 12.3 points per game.
In the SEC Tournament semifinal versus Arkansas, Georgia's Mann and Frazier were completely shut down by a fierce Razorback perimeter defense. As a result, the Bulldogs only scored 49 points and lost by 11. It should be a little easier for the Georgia guard duo to get going against Trice and Tum Tum Nairn, but Michigan State's large forward rotation has a good chance of keeping Thornton and Djurisic in check. Specifically, the size and speed combo that Dawson presents makes him a good player to match up with Djurisic and either follow him out to the perimeter or stay inside and block shots depending on the situation.
The key to the game will be Michigan State keeping Georgia off the free throw line. The Bulldog offense is rather pedestrian except for its ability to draw fouls with Mann and Thornton. The Spartans have been quite foul-prone in Big Ten play, but if they are able to deflect some shots and be patient on offense, a date with No. 2 Virginia or No. 15 Belmont will be clinched.