It wasn’t supposed to go this way for the Spartans in March. The inevitable down year was upon them, or so many opined back in February. Two integral players had gone to the NBA, it's best Freshman was out with a broken foot and the team had suffered eight losses prior to March for the first time in four years. This was a team that might miss the Big Dance altogether, not one ready to make a run at Tom Izzo’s seventh Final Four appearance. Yet as No. 7 seed Michigan State prepares to take on the No. 3 seed Oklahoma Sooners in the Sweet 16 on Friday, can anyone say they are truly surprised?
How They Got Here
Michigan State kicked off its 18th consecutive tournament appearance against the No. 10 seed Georgia Bulldogs, returning to the field for the first time since 2011. The game was in many ways a microcosm of the Spartans entire season. Flashes of a veteran team with tremendous athleticism, capable of pushing nearly any team in transition, interspersed with baffling mental errors and untimely cold spells. The game was knotted at 14 more than mid-way through the first half when senior guard Travis Trice sparked the Michigan State offense. Trice scored or assisted on 17 of the Spartans next 21 points to give his team a 35-22 advantage at the break.
Inconsistency would plague Michigan State again in the second half though. The Bulldogs whittled down the deficit to two points, 37-39, with over 14 minutes left to play. It was Branden Dawson’s turn to pick the Spartans up this time, scoring eight of the next ten points to build the lead back up to double digits. The lead evaporated yet again down the stretch though, as Georgia pulled within a basket in the final minute. Foul shots would not undo the Spartans this time however, as Junior Denzel Valentine calmly hit his last six foul shots to give him a team-high 16 points and secure the win.
This set the stage for a re-match of last year’s Sweet 16 battle with No. 2 seed Virginia. Tom Izzo showed once again why the Spartans are so dangerous in March, toppling the ACC Champion Cavaliers. The formula was much the same, lockdown defense and just enough offense to scrape by. Travis Trice received a text before the game from former Spartan and current Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green, his message was simple. "Don't let this be your last game." Trice’s response? "It won’t." The former reserve guard played with every bit of confidence his text indicated, scoring 13 of his team’s first 15 points. The burst gave Michigan State an early 15-4 lead, one that it would never relinquish. The Spartans held Virginia to a season-low 29.8 percent shooting thanks to tremendous team defense. Trice and Valentine did an excellent job navigating the Cavaliers numerous screens and Dawson played like a legitimate rim protector with four blocks and nine rebounds.
The Path to Indy
The Spartans are on to the Carrier Dome for a Sweet 16 matchup with Oklahoma, the third place team from the Big 12. The winner will move on to the Elite 8 to meet the winner of No. 4 seed Louisville and No. 8 seed North Carolina State. The game figures to have a decidedly speedier tempo, as the Sooners like to get out and run in transition. This is a pace that suits Michigan State well, a team that is perhaps at its best when the game speeds up. If history is any indication this game might well turn into a shootout. The Spartans outlasted Oklahoma, 87-76, in Brooklyn, New York last season.
If Michigan State is to continue its run for another weekend the defense will need to continue to be stellar. MSU held its first two opponents to a combined 31.5 percent shooting and a putrid 19.3 percent from beyond the arc. It is unreasonable to expect the Spartans to continue to hold teams so far below their season averages, but if they continue to play with the focus and precision demonstrated thus far, Michigan State will give headaches to any offense it faces the rest of the way.
On offense, veterans Travis Trice, Branden Dawson and Denzel Valentine will need to continue to carry the bulk of the load. The trio has combined to score 66-percent of the Spartans points in the tournament and Izzo needs his three most dynamic scorers to keep firing. Valentine especially will need to have a strong game after going 1-of-6 from the field against Virginia. The biggest weakness for the Spartans will continue to be their free throw shooting, MSU came into the tourney shooting 63.3-percent from the stripe, 330th in the nation. There is little reason to think that number will improve as Michigan State has only managed to shoot 59.6-percent in its two tournament games. While Denzel Valentine exercised some of the Spartans demons with his clutch free throw shooting against Georgia, foul shots should still be a huge concern going forward when games can be won or lost at the line.
Despite its free throw shooting woes, Michigan State is now the odds-on-favorite to advance out of the East region, but Tom Izzo and his staff are not resting easy. They have spent the week preparing for not only Oklahoma, but for a potential Sunday matchup with either Louisville or N.C. State as well.
"It's been fun," Izzo said. "I mean, the staff meetings, my staff has been great about it, but they've been working their tail off because there's so many different ways that everybody's playing, especially in this group."
The road to the final four will be demanding, as it always is, but rest assured that no team will be better prepared than Izzo’s Spartans.