The Michigan State Spartans were not an automatic pick to repeat for a fourth straight Big Ten title, but it was widely believed the team had the potential to be in the conversation for one. An undefeated non-conference season that featured a road win at Duke only fueled that belief for the Spartan faithful. However, the lack of a viable point guard an inability of the staff to narrow down the list of big men for the go to center resulted in this week’s Big Ten Tournament finding the Spartans at the 9th seed with the first ever sub-.500 Big Ten record for Tom Izzo’s career.
But can the Spartans surprise in Indy? Let’s take a look.
As the 9 seed, Michigan State has the opening game on Thursday in Big Ten Tournament play against Maryland. While not as terrible as a Wednesday game, and there are some rest advantages provided by having the first game of the day over the course of the tournament, the path to Sunday is the most difficult of second day starts by seeding.
_________ will be cutting down the nets Sunday? pic.twitter.com/umsMb9qEoV— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) March 8, 2021
Still, the opening matchup offers a promising opportunity for Michigan State. The Spartans fell to the Terps’ by 18 points in the teams only matchup just 11 days ago. However, that Spartan squad was coming off a brutal week of games against back-to-back top-5 opponents while Maryland had seven days rest.
The Terps brought an absolute lock down defense to the game against the Spartans and immediately jumped out to an 11-point lead MSU could never really break. However, anybody who watched the game would be absolutely lying to themselves if fatigue wasn’t a huge impact among the green and white.
The Spartans defense was sloppy and left wide open three’s that Maryland drained at a clip far higher than their season average. They also got to the line repeatedly and made free throws at a higher clip than the season average. Meanwhile, dead legs on the Spartan end saw them refuse to put pressure on the Maryland zone and settle for long threes that never had a chance on tired legs.
Again, Maryland won the matchup fair and square, but the odds are far more even and the MSU coaching staff have much better material to prep on an even basis for this one. It should be a far more competitive matchup this time around for fans to enjoy.
-If They Advance
Should Michigan State beat Maryland on Thursday, the Spartans would then move on to face Michigan on Friday morning. This would be an unprecedented third game in nine days for the in-state rivals, something that has never happened in such a short order. It certainly adds a ton of intrigue for those who hail from the mitten/two peninsula state. Added to the aura around the matchup is the fact the teams split the regular season games, and Eli Brooks based purely on the eye test of the injury on Sunday seems unlikely to play for the Wolverines.
Not to underscore the impressive roster the Wolverines feature, but the fact is two of their three losses on the season were in road games in which Eli Brooks was not playing his normal minutes in a game. Given this article is focusing on how the Spartans can win the tournament, this is obviously a key linchpin for their second game.
Without Brooks, the Wolverines struggled to dig out of the early deficit the team found itself in like it could in other games like against Ohio State on the road. If the Spartans can play with the same tenacity and grit against a Brooks-less Wolverines squad, they should be able to find the same result as the game just five days prior.
With all of that said, the Spartans are still a squad that hasn’t found a true answer at point guard and played a brutal gauntlet down the finishing stretch of the season without truly adequate time off. Add onto that the second game in as many days against a rested Wolverines squad, and it is still a tall task to get the win.
If MSU makes it past Michigan, it would then most likely face either Ohio State or Purdue. The saying goes that it is tough to beat a team three times in a single season, and maybe that might make the difference for the Spartans if facing Purdue. As for the Buckeyes, a win over Ohio State in the only matchup of the season between the two programs should leave Ohio State hungry for revenge on a neutral court. Neither team proves an easy upset opportunity.
After that, MSU would likely have to get through Illinois or Iowa for the Big Ten Tournament title on Sunday. A repeat upset of Illinois seems daunting with how the Illini have played since their loss in East Lansing, though perhaps the three game superstition could prove true in the case of Iowa somehow. Neither opponent will be a promising out.
It has been a roller coaster season of continued dominance, tourney streak doom, and then truly remarkable underdog resurgence in East Lansing. However, the team has a chance to drop any chance of nervousness on the final decisions by the selection committee. While being considered a lock at this point no matter what, one more win should remove any doubt measurements like NET ranking could prove a spoiler and two wins just creates a fun havoc on seeding debates. The wins won’t be easy, especially in this year’s Big Ten, but the Spartans earned the right to laugh at doubters over the closing weeks of the regular season.