It’s been a long season in the Big Ten. After 18 games of beating each other to death, seven Big Ten teams now find themselves in the big dance. Some have aspirations of winning it all, while others hope to pull off a Cinderella run to the Sweet 16.
The Michigan State Spartans find themselves in the former category. As the three-seed in the Midwest bracket, the Spartans will play a home game at the Palace of Auburn Hills against Valparaiso in the “second” round before likely facing Memphis in the round of 32.
I like Sparty to avoid upset in these two games, but the team will make it no further than the Sweet 16 this year.
The reason for this isn’t because the Spartans can’t play. In fact, I’d argue quite the opposite; this Michigan State team has talented players and head coach Tom Izzo is one of the best in the business.
The Spartans’ problem is solely in scheduling. Drawing the tournament’s best two-seed in the Sweet 16 is simply tough luck for MSU, and that could cost them a run deep into the tournament.
The two-seed that I speak of is the Duke Blue Devils, one of the nation’s best teams and certainly one of the best-coached. Head coach Mike Krzyzewski is no stranger to deep NCAA tournament runs, and he has the team to make another one this time around.
This (potential) game comes down to matchups. The Spartans have relied on their combination of bigs to win games for them this year, and for good reason: Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix are two of the best big men in the conference.
However, the Blue Devils have the answer to Payne and Nix in Ryan Kelly and Mason Plumlee. Kelly’s length and range is very similar to Payne’s, making this a marquee matchup. Meanwhile, the Plumlee-Nix matchup will be interesting as well, but I favor Plumlee because of his athleticism.
Outside of the paint is where Duke really takes the advantage. Point guard play is arguably the most important part of making a tournament run, and the Blue Devils have one of the best guard tandems in the land in Seth Curry and Quinn Cook. Curry has been in a shooting guard role for much of this year, with Cook manning the point and averaging 5.4 assists per game. Meanwhile, Curry has scored 16.9 points per.
Comparatively, the Spartans will roll with PG Keith Appling and SG Gary Harris. Appling and Harris have been two of the Spartans’ best offensive players at times this year, but have also shown flaws. Appling has the tendency to take bad shots and has a poor assist-turnover ratio for a point guard at just 1.45:1 (Cook’s is 2.31:1).
Harris has been great this year as a freshman, earning Big Ten Freshman of the Year honors. A skilled 3-point shooter, Harris could indeed catch fire and lift the Spartans past the Blue Devils, but I don’t see it happening. With Curry in his face all day and the pressure huge, it won’t surprise me to see the 18-year old have an off day.
This game will be a good one, with plenty of great matchups to watch. I give the edge to the Blue Devils in this one, but never count Izzo and the Spartans out, especially in March.
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