Even though it had lost to Wisconsin in the final game of the Big Ten Tournament, Michigan State entered Friday's second-round match against Georgia with some serious momentum. The Spartans had dispatched Ohio State and Maryland in the week prior and were playing some of their best basketball of the season. Would that be enough to defeat the battle-hardened Bulldogs?
It turns out that Michigan State does have what it takes to move into the round of 32, but just barely. After taking a 13-point halftime lead and countering an early Georgia second-half run, the Spartans found themselves up by 12 points with one-and-a-half minutes to play...
What We Learned
Kenny Gaines is one tough customer
The game was far from over, though. Following a Michigan State timeout, the Bulldogs went on an 11-2 run, which was capped by a three-point play on a drive to the basket by Gaines. Although the Spartans were able to survive and win 70-63 thanks to some clutch free throw shooting by Denzel Valentine, you have to applaud the effort by Gaines, who was playing on a sprained foot that held him out of the SEC Tournament. The junior finished with 15 points on 5-for-10 shooting and will be key to helping the Bulldogs return to the NCAA Tournament in 2016.
The Spartans can be dangerous when their stars align
All season long, Michigan State has had the talent to be a top team in the Big Ten, but it seems like the unit is only recently playing up to its potential. The scariest part of the offense is that there's no one player to focus on. Valentine, along with Travis Trice and Branden Dawson, are all players who know how to share the ball and get their teammates involved. The balanced effort against Georgia that saw the trio combine for 45 points is becoming typical, and it certainly doesn't hurt when Bryn Forbes comes off the bench to knock down three-pointers.
Branden Dawson might be the most important player to Michigan State's chances
After a very quiet first half, Dawson showed up when it counted in the second. The Bulldogs had closed to within two points by midway through the final period, but three-point plays by Dawson on back-to-back trips gave the Spartans a renewed cushion. Although the senior has battled wrist and head injuries this season, he's been able to develop into an elite rebounder and shot blocker while maintaining a scoring touch. With the ability to contribute in so many areas, Dawson will be key to Michigan State's chances against Virginia and his talents will be valued by professional scouts as well.