If this weren’t Michigan State, everyone would be throwing around the “Cinderella” tag. The Spartans have already lost 11 games this season, and as a No. 7 seed in the East Region, not many had MSU slated to show up in Indy.
Then again, this team has come a long, long way since the struggles of the early portion of the year when it lost to the likes of Texas Southern and Nebraska, and even though it has yet to win more than four games in a row this season, head coach Tom Izzo is proud of his guys. This is a talented, hungry team that is itching to prove it belongs.
Strengths: What else would you expect out of a Tom Izzo team? MSU shares the ball well, it rebounds well and it plays tough defense. The Spartans also can hit shots from anywhere on the floor, and the team’s depth allows it to use a lot of different guys without much of a drop-off. Guards Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine both can play the point, which puts a lot of pressure on opponents, and both have the versatility to either knock down the three or go to the rim.
Trice’s step-back jumper is killer. Forward Branden Dawson is a threat for a double-double every time he hits the floor, and his grit in the paint forces other teams to match his intensity. This also is an athletic squad that loves to push the tempo off defensive rebounds.
Weaknesses: For all of MSU’s versatility, it’s missing a quality, pound-it-in-the-paint post scorer. Valentine can do it, and Dawson has some post skills, as well. But this isn’t a team blessed with great size. Junior Matt Costello and sophomore Gavin Schilling are both 6-9 and have the bulk to battle, but they are limited offensively compared to other bigs in the Final Four. This also is a shaky free-throw shooting team, especially among the bigs, and the Spartans lack a consistent rim protector.
How They Beat Teams: Execution is everything for Michigan State. This is a team that has improved as the season has progressed and is playing its best basketball. Trice and Valentine have fantastic chemistry on the court, and their confidence sets the tone for their teammates. MSU isn’t really interested in getting into a shootout. Sparty prefers to force opponents to make mistakes and make them pay when the errors come. Down the stretch, few teams are crisper than MSU, and nobody uses his timeouts more wisely than Izzo.
How They Get Beat: Michigan State didn’t beat a team ranked higher than No. 8 all season, and that was a four-point win over Maryland in the Big Ten Tournament. The Terps had previously won a pair of games vs. MSU, so don’t let it be said Tom Izzo ever loses to a team three times in a year. The Spartans really struggle against teams with quality size inside. Duke pounded them in the paint early in the season. So did Maryland and Ohio State and Wisconsin. Trice can try to do too much on the floor at times and make bad decisions, and when Dawson checks out mentally, the Spartans really struggle.