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Can Michigan State Make A Run In The NCAA Tournament?

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What will the Spartans do in the big dance?

NCAA East Regional Photo by Mitchell Layton/Getty Images

The Michigan State Spartans under head coach Tom Izzo have been synonymous with surprise upsets and deep runs in the big dance since Izzo’s first team that got a bid in 1997. Since then, the team has made it every tournament since, and while there have been a few close calls, this team was as close to missing out on a bid as you can get.

A stunning series of wins over top-5 opponents in Illinois, Ohio State, and Michigan down the stretch lifted the program not just off life support, but from the literal dead in terms of chances to make the NCAA. With all of that said, this year’s Michigan State squad is still merely a No. 11 seed facing UCLA in a play-in round.

But can the Spartans still surprise in the big dance? Let’s take a look.

-Play-In Round

As the 11 seed, Michigan State has a late, late game against the UCLA Bruins tonight in Mackey Arena before they can even play in the first round. The Bruins enter this one on a four game losing streak and with few signature wins on their season in a conference not even close to the Big Ten in depth. However, UCLA is a tough and evenly-matched draw with the Spartans and looks to be a difficult out.

UCLA certainly has the offense to challenge MSU. While the Bruins rank No. 45 overall in KenPom compared to Michigan State’s 57th, the teams are mirror images of each other in terms of their strengths. UCLA is 26th in adjusted offense and 86th in adjusted defense, while the Spartans are 98th in adjusted offense but 34th in adjusted defense. Essentially the two make strength versus strength and weakness versus weakness as a result.

However, it should be a close matchup and you can catch the full preview here. Should Michigan State get the win, they will go on to face BYU.

-If They Advance

With a late win on Thursday night, the Spartans face the No. 6 seed Cougars late Saturday night. BYU is a strong team on both sides of the ball, ranking No. 28 in adjusted offense and No. 26 in adjusted defense in KenPom. In unadjusted offense, the team averages 78.7 ppg, compared to the Spartans 69.0 ppg. However, the Cougars faces an adjusted SOS rated 74th to MSU’s 8th.

BYU does feature wins over San Diego State and eight total wins combined in Quad 1 and Quad 2. They also rank in the AP Top-25 entering the tournament as well after an impressive showing in a loss to Gonzaga in their conference tournament final. BYU also features a player familiar with facing off against Michigan State in Purdue transfer Matt Haarms who is the leading rebounder with 4.8 rpg and third leading scorer on the roster with 11.3 ppg.

Overcoming BYU will be more difficult for MSU than a win over UCLA, but the battle tested Spartans should benefit from a brutal finishing stretch to the regular season that might prove the advantage despite facing a more rested Cougar squad.

Should Michigan State upset BYU, they would almost assuredly face off against the No. 3 seeded Texas Longhorns. While Izzo has advanced to the second week more times than not in the NCAA Tournament, pulling off a 15th trip in 23 tries seems unlikely. The Longhorns rank 26th in KenPom and feature the 21st offense and 36th defense.

On top of that, Texas has six players who are averaging at least 8.8 points per game, while Michigan State features just three. If the Spartans can find a way to limit Texas’s offensive production and outmuscle them at the glass, it may be just enough to get by in a squeaker, though.

Second Weekend

Should Michigan State advance to the Sweet 16, the No. 2 seed Crimson Tide are the popular pick, though 15th seeded Iona under head coach Richard Pitino are a trendy upset pick. Other possible opponents include Maryland and UConn, but are unlikely.

Alabama would be perhaps an even greater challenge for Michigan State than Texas. The Crimson Tide seem to be playing great ball right now under Nate Oats, winning both the regular season SEC title and the conference tournament title. Featuring the No. 3 adjusted defense, Bama would cause fits for the Spartans who struggle on offense. It would take quite some impressive coaching and play by MSU to advance to the Elite 8.

The regional finals are tough to call on the likely opponent. Can arch rival Michigan overcome the loss of Isiah Livers to advance? Can LSU light it up from the perimeter to make it this far? What about Colorado, Georgetown, or Florida State? The best case scenario for MSU would be Colorado and Georgetown, obviously. If Michigan is still without Livers, the Spartans may be able to repeat the regular season finale upset win on a neutral court, as well. LSU and Florida State would be tough to overcome, especially with the way the Tigers shoot from the perimeter. If the Spartans can find a way, they would advance on to their second straight Final Four and ninth under head coach Tom Izzo, and eleventh overall for the program.

Final Series

The likelihood of Michigan State making the Final Four, let alone the title game is remote. It would require becoming just the fifth play-in team to reach the second weekend, but then the first to ever advance even further than the Sweet 16. However, if there is any coach that can do it, that coach is probably Tom Izzo. So I’ll take a second to just mention it at least.

The favorite by far to advance to the Final Four from the West Division is of course Gonzaga. There is always a good chance the Zags could stumble to a team like Iowa, Kansas, or Virginia, but all three lost by double figures to Gonzaga during the regular season. The Spartans faced Gonzaga in closed door scrimmages prior to the regular season in 2019 and 2018, both reportedly by significant margins despite no official score being released. Those teams were far superior to what the Spartans field on the court this season. Downing Gonzaga would be quite the tall task for MSU, and the same applies to other likely opponents.

If MSU somehow made a title game, the Spartans would then have to overcome the likes of Baylor of Illinois most likely. The two seeds in either region, both Ohio State and Houston, would be less daunting, as would the the 3-seeded Mountaineers of West Virginia from the Midwest, but Arkansas from the South would be a tough draw as well. None of the likely draws would be probably wins, though.

Overall

It has been a roller coaster season of continued in East Lansing. However, the team pulled off the unthinkable from where expectations sat just a month ago even. The gauntlet of Big Ten games provided quite the challenge for this team to face, and they emerged with a more impressive slate of wins than any other team in the country in the final weeks of the regular season. Will that be enough to give Michigan State a boost to make a run past the play-in game at a minimum? We find out in just a few short hours.