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NCAA Tournament Preview: No. 3 Michigan State Spartans vs. No. 14 Bucknell Bison

The road to the Final Four for Michigan State begins against Bucknell on Friday night in the Motor City.

NCAA Basketball: North Florida at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

It will all begin right down the road for the Michigan State Spartans, who will open the 2018 NCAA Tournament against the 14 seeded Bucknell Bison on Friday night. This first round matchup will take place in the Spartans’ backyard at the brand new Little Caesars Arena in Detroit, with a heavy populated Michigan State crowd expected to fill the building.

Michigan State has been one of the favorites all season long to cut down the nets in San Antonio on the first Monday in April, and playing close to home in the opening weekend should help out. However, don’t count out Bucknell, who is a sneaky good team and could give the Spartans fits in this first round matchup.

Bucknell enters the NCAA Tournament with a 25-9 record after dominating the Patriot League this year. The Bison captured both the Patriot League regular season and conference tournament championships, and also had some impressive performances in non-conference play — narrow losses at North Carolina and Maryland, and a victory over solid mid-major Vermont.

The Bison are led by three seniors who all average more than 14 points per game and can hit shots from anywhere on the floor. So you might not recognize or know of Bucknell, but you should definitely recognize that this won’t be an easy win for the Spartans. Unless of course Michigan State actually plays up to its potential — then the Bison won’t stand much of a chance.

#3 Michigan State vs. #14 Bucknell

  • Time/TV: 7:10PM ET/CBS
  • KenPom Spread: Michigan State (-14)

1) Can Michigan State put this one on ice early on?

As I already mentioned, this opening round matchup will ultimately be a home game for the Spartans so with the crowd behind them Michigan State could make things easy and put this game away right off the bat. That is something Michigan State is capable of doing, but hasn’t always been able to do this year.

If you let a heavy underdog get off to a fast start in the NCAA Tournament, then you’re playing with fire. Just look at what happened two years ago against Middle Tennessee State when the Spartans fell behind 17-4 in the first five minutes, and as we all know ultimately lost. That game could serve as a learning lesson for this year’s team — who enters the big dance with similar expectations — and help the Spartans avoid another slow start of that nature.

Head coach Tom Izzo said earlier this week he actually believes Bucknell is possibly better than that 2015 Middle Tennessee State team so the Bison won’t be surprising the Spartans like the Blue Raiders did two years ago.

”I look at them and they’re as good or better than Middle Tennessee,” Izzo told reporters during a Tuesday press conference.

Saying you won’t be surprised is nice and all, but it doesn’t mean anything if you don’t come out ready to play. We’ll see if the Spartans are able to get things going fast, and should have a good idea of how this game will play out within the first five to 10 minutes.

2) Who will get more production from behind the arc?

Both of these teams have proven they can hit the deep shot at times this year, and this could be an area that determines who comes out victorious. Well, let me be more clear on that — Bucknell MUST hit three-point shots and dominate in this category for it to be a factor in this game, which is certainly possible.

One of the things being talked about regarding Bucknell is their ability to hit the three-point shot. Now if you look strictly at the numbers, the Bison aren’t world beaters from behind the arc. They rank 212th nationally in three-point percentage at 34.3% and have hit 269 three-point attempts this year, which ranks 109th nationally. So those aren’t staggering numbers, however, they do have nine players who have made 12 or more three-point attempts this season. So basically all but one of their guys who sees regular minutes can hit it from outside — that makes them dangerous.

On the flipside, Michigan State can also stroke it from outside. The Spartans rank fifth nationally in three-point percentage at 41.3 percent and have hit eight more shots from behind the arc than the Bison. The issue with Michigan State is when they go cold, it throws them off completely and can cost them the game — look at their last outing against Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament where they were 7-for-25 from three-point range.

Upsets of this nature occur when the underdog hits shots from three-point range. Bucknell has the ability to make those kinds of shots, and will need to hit those shots in order to pull off the upset. They might also need the Spartans to miss quite a few too.

3) Can Michigan State contain Bucknell’s big three?

The Spartans have quite a few guys that are household names, including their big three of forward Miles Bridges, guard Cassius Winston and forward Jaren Jackson Jr. Bucknell also has a big three that might not receive as much hype as the Spartans’ but certainly can hang.

The Bison are led by three seniors who started every game this year and are each averaging more than 14 points per game — forward Zach Thomas (20.3 points), center Nana Foulland (15.4 points) and guard Stephen Brown (14.9 points). Even more impressive about those numbers is that all three of those guys play roughly 30 minutes per game, proving they are very efficient when they’re on the floor.

Bucknell gets more than 50 points per game out of these three guys but after that there’s a bit of a drop off so what’s that mean — you stop these guys then you’re in good shape. Michigan State has the defensive ability to contain this trio, but it will be very important that they don’t let them get going early on. Especially Thomas, who has proven he can hit shots from anywhere on the floor.

Overall

Michigan State is a double-digit favorite for a reason, but Bucknell has some players to make this a game. The Bison nearly knocked off North Carolina at the Dean Dome and were leading a full-strength Maryland squad by double-digits at halftime earlier this year. So they won’t be afraid of the Spartans in this game, and if Michigan State doesn’t come out firing this one will remain tight throughout. However, I think the Spartans will be motivated in front of a mostly green-and-white crowd, and pull away in the second half for a comfortable victory.

  • Pick Against The Spread: Michigan State