There’s a really sour taste in the mouths of Spartans everywhere right now with how things ended in New York. Losing to your arch rival for the second time this year will do that to you, but that doesn’t completely erase what the Spartans achieved this year. And what they still could accomplish moving forward.
Michigan State will enter the NCAA Tournament again poised for a deep run, finishing up the season with a 29-4 record. Michigan State was ranked as high as No. 1 during the year and never dropped outside the top 10. This talented bunch, led by sophomores Miles Bridges and Cassius Winston, achieved a lot this year and should be one of the favorites to make it to San Antonio in late March/early April. Let’s just hope they don’t run into Michigan again along the way...
Winning championships and hanging banners was the expectation for the Spartans entering the season. Michigan State was pegged as one of the National Championship favorites ever since Bridges decided to come back for his sophomore year, and those lofty goals have never left the Spartans throughout the year.
Michigan State was ranked No. 2 in the preseason AP Poll, only a few votes behind Duke. The Spartans were also the hands down favorites to win the Big Ten regular season championship as well, with the media unanimously picking Michigan State as the champions back in October. It was safe to say that there was more preseason buzz about these Spartans than maybe ever before during Izzo’s tenure in East Lansing.
Michigan State finished non-conference play with an impressive 12-1 record, which included a pair of victories against top 10 teams. The lone loss came against then-No. 1 Duke in the Champions Classic in Chicago. The highly anticipated matchup was back and forth throughout, but the Blue Devils were able to pull away at the end of the game thanks to 37 points from Grayson Allen.
The Spartans would quickly rebound from that loss to win the rest of their non-conference matchups. The highlight from the out of conference slate was four wins in eight days in November, with three of those coming in the PK80 Invitational. The Spartans were able to beat DePaul, UConn and then-No. 9 North Carolina to win their bracket of the PK80 Invitational. Then four days later, Michigan State thumped then-No. 5 Notre Dame in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge by a score of 81-63.
Michigan State got off to a rocky start in Big Ten play, but was able to rebound from a pair of early losses to win the regular season championship outright with a 16-2 record.
The Spartans started off league play with three wins, but were humbled by Ohio State in a matchup in Columbus. The Buckeyes beat Michigan State by 16 points in that game, and less than a week later in-state rival Michigan came into the Breslin Center and also beat the Spartans by double-digits. Those two losses — with an overtime win against Rutgers inbetween — dropped the Spartans to 4-2 in conference play and with how well Purdue and Ohio State were playing, Michigan State couldn’t afford to lose too many more games. Lucky for them, they didn’t lose again.
Michigan State reeled off 12 straight wins to finish the regular season and capture the program’s first outright regular season championship since 2009. The Spartans had to fight back in a number of those games, trailing in the second half in six of those wins. The biggest victory during this stretch was a three-point win over then-No. 3 Purdue courteous of a buzzer beater from Bridges.
Michigan State rode that winning streak into New York City for the Big Ten Tournament, and knocked off the Wisconsin Badgers in their quarterfinals matchup. The Spartans again trailed in the second half, but were able to fight off the pesky Badgers to move on. However, their winning ways would come to an end in the semifinals with rival Michigan again beating the Spartans to send Michigan State home. It’s safe to say that loss may be the low point of the season for Michigan State with many — including myself — expecting the Spartans to get revenge from the earlier season loss to the Wolverines.
The loss to Michigan on Saturday closes the door on the Spartans’ chances of landing a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. Conference tournaments across the country this week will give us more of an idea of where the Spartans will land on the seeding line, but my guess is it’ll be a No. 2 or 3 seed. Maybe a No. 4 if the committee primarily uses the metrics and not the “eye test.”
The loss to the Wolverines also jeopardizes Michigan State’s odds of being placed at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit for the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Playing right down the road was something the Spartans really wanted to land, and with other teams in the region still in the conversation for Detroit — Purdue, Michigan, Xavier and Cincinnati — you wonder if that’s now off the table. That would be a big blow for the Spartans, with the first and second rounds being like home games in Detroit.
We’ll find out on Selection Sunday where the Spartans will be land in the NCAA Tournament — both seeding and location — but with a team this talented it shouldn’t really matter. Despite the loss to Michigan, it’s still a Final Four or bust kind of season for the Spartans so anything short of reaching San Antonio will be a disappointment. The pieces are there for the Spartans to win it all, and if they live up to their potential then they can achieve great things in the big dance. But if they don’t, then we might be looking at an early exit in March.