Sparty will head to the Sweet Sixteen for the seventh time in the last eight years following an impressive win over ACC regular season champs Virginia. This may be the most resilient team in the country. Just a month ago, a home loss to Minnesota had some people, including myself, questioning whether this was a group worthy of an NCAA Tournament bid. Now, they are one of only two B1G teams left in the tourney and might just have the easier path to the Final Four.
This was the Spartans game from the get-go. Izzo's squad jumped out a 15-4 lead early in the game before Virginia knew what hit them. The rest of the way was a slugfest, with ten total blocks and a tight defense forcing difficult shots on both ends. Virginia never gave up, but MSU held on strongly to take a 60-54 victory.
What We Learned:
Don't Count Out
Touchdown Tournament Tom
Tom Izzo seems to always find a way to win in March. The only team his guys have lost to since the month began has been Wisconsin. The first game was at the Kohl Center and the second was an overtime game that they really should have won. As I mentioned above, many felt that with the poor free throw shooting (more on that later) and an apparent lack of the type of leadership that has become the hallmark of Izzo's teams, this group was destined to falter where their predecessors had excelled. Then Travis Trice's resurgence happened, and while a lot of credit deserves to go to Trice, everyone realizes that Izzo had a lot to do with his recent success. Tom always seems to get the most of his teams right when it matters most, and yet we still keep thinking "this could be the year they have a bad season."
Sparty can play with and beat anyone
You may have thought we learned this in the B1G tournament final, but I submit that we couldn't truly know until they beat a top team from another conference. MSU played a lot of tough teams during their non-conference schedule, but they didn't really beat any of them. KU, Duke, and ND all came away with victories against this team, despite some close games. Their marquee win outside of the B1G? A very mediocre Marquette team. However, in the last few weeks they have now taken 1-seed Wisconsin to the brink and beaten UVA as badly as anyone has this year. At this point, they could arguably be considered the favorites in the East Region.
Poor free throw shooting doesn't always kill you
Every year during the tournament you hear about how the teams that advance are good closers and that hitting your free throws are a key to closing. I tend to agree with that sentiment, but maybe, just maybe, these Spartans are the exception that proves the rule. This group seems to be able to counter their bad shooting from the line with stifling defense late in games. I still think that the charity stripe could be their undoing, but it hasn't yet and for a team that shoots it this bad from the line, that is impressive.
This Michigan State squad has become a completely different team in the past month. They've found a leader in Trice and with Izzo at the helm, every other team left in the tournament should be wary of them as the games continue. Free throw shooting may limit their ceiling, but then again they've already raised their ceiling once this season, why couldn't they do it again in a week?