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NCAA Tournament Preview: #9 Michigan State vs. #1 Kansas

Michigan State will look to shake up the Midwest Region against top seed Kansas.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Michigan State vs Miami Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State overcame a terrible start to top Miami in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Friday night. That’s the good news. The bad news is blue-blood Kansas is waiting for the Spartans in the second round.

The Spartans and Jayhawks will battle it out for a spot in the Sweet 16 on Sunday, pitting a matchup between two of the game’s best coaches. Kansas enters the matchup as the heavy favorite to win this game and is picked by many to go deep into the tournament. I personally have them in my Final Four. Michigan State on the other hand has nothing to lose and should be quite loose. Sometimes that’s a good thing.

Michigan State will need a great game in order to pull the upset. For that to happen they’ll need to accomplish these three things: get off to a fast start, contain Kansas leading-scorer Frank Mason, and take advantage of Jayhawk turnovers. Here’s a deeper look at each one of those three keys.

#9 Michigan State vs. #1 Kansas

  • Time/TV: 5:15 PM ET - CBS
  • Spread: Kansas (-8)

1. Can Michigan State get off to a fast start?

The Spartans had a terrible start in their first round matchup with Miami, committing seven turnovers in the first 10 minutes and falling behind as much as 12 points. They can’t afford that kind of performance against a much better Kansas team.

Kansas is a highly skilled offensive team that averaged 83.2 points per game — that ranks 15th in the country. They have threats at each position on the floor and can find numerous ways to score. So playing catch up against team like this is not an option.

The last time Michigan State pulled off an upset like this was against 2 seed Virginia in the 2015 NCAA Tournament. The Spartans built an early 15-4 lead in that game and never looked back. That’s the same type of performance they’ll need to pull the upset. All together they’ll have to construct a solid 40-minute effort, and that kind of performance starts with a great first five or 10 minutes for the Spartans.

2. How will Michigan State handle Mason?

Mason has been the go-to guy for the Jayhawks all season and is considered by some as the National Player of the Year. Michigan State will have their hands full with guarding him on Sunday.

The senior guard averages 20.8 points, 5.2 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game. He had another big game in the tournament opener against UC Davis, finishing with 22 points, 8 assists and 5 rebounds. He basically does it all for Kansas, similar to what Derrick Walton Jr. does for Michigan.

Shutting Mason down seems very unrealistic — he’s reached double-digits in points in all but one game this year — but Michigan State will need to find a way to at least contain him. There will be a combination of guys who’ll guard Mason on Sunday, with junior Lourawls ‘Tum Tum’ Nairn and freshman Cassius Winston matching up with him for most of the game. Both of those guys are fast guards just like Mason, and both are solid defensively. Especially Tum Tum.

Mason will surely put up better numbers then Nairn and Winston combined, but if those two are able to keep Mason in front of them for most of the night then Michigan State will have a chance. Mason has reached at least 20 points in seven of the last eight games so the goal for the Spartans will be to keep him to 15 points or less. They do that and they’ll have a chance.

3. Can Michigan State cash in on Kansas’ turnovers?

Kansas does a lot of things well so it’s hard to find an area where you can exploit them but they do have one noticeable weakness — they are sloppy with the ball.

Kansas only lost four games this year and when looking at those four losses I found one common factor — turnovers. Kansas averages 13.1 turnovers per game, which is a lot, and in their four losses they gave it up nearly 15 times per contest. That’s a lot of turnovers.

So if Kansas is willing to give away this many possessions then Michigan State needs to take advantage of this opportunity. If they win the turnover battle and are able to cash those Kansas turnovers into points then they’ll be able to hang around with the Jayhawks.

Overall

Tom Izzo is the best when it comes to a second game of a tournament weekend. He’s an incredible 21-4 in the second game of a NCAA Tournament weekend. So if you have Izzo you have a chance. But three of those losses were to 1 seeds — Texas in the Elite Eight in 2003, North Carolina in the second round in 2007 and North Carolina in the National Championship Game in 2009 — and as we all know Kansas is a 1 seed. The Jayhawks are too talented and too deep for Michigan State. Whether it’s Mason or Josh Jackson or Devonte’ Graham, they simply have too many threats offensively for the Spartans to keep up. I see this one being close at half and for most of the second half — similar to the Duke game in late November for the Spartans — but in the end Kansas will pull away. I still like the Spartans to cover the spread, but their season will come to end on Sunday.

  • Pick against the spread: Michigan State (+8)