They had to sweat it out more than they would have liked, but Michigan State founds its way back to the NCAA Tournament for a 20th straight season under the direction of Tom Izzo.
It was definitely one of the more challenging seasons for Izzo and company. He had to deal with injuries to his [projected] starting front court before the season ever began. With those injuries came a dip in leadership on the floor, where the Spartans really struggled at times during the year. Ultimately, a relatively young and inexperienced team was able to muster up enough of a resume and get in.
Michigan State was awarded a 9-seed for their efforts in 2016/17, generous in the eyes of some. It presented with the Spartans with an intriguing section of the bracket. In the first round, MSU will be pitted against the 8-seed Hurricanes of Miami (21-11, 10-8 ACC). Being in arguably the toughest conference all season, Miami was had many resume-building qualities such as schedule strength and high-profile wins.
And much like Michigan State, the ‘Canes have had to rely on a young corps of freshman for production and success. It’s that youth that is one of our three keys to the game:
1. YOUTH MOVEMENT: Because they have had to rely on their younger talent on a number of occasions this season, Michigan State game results are often define by how well the MSU freshmen do. But lately, it’s been evident most with point guard Cassius Winston.
MSU is 7-5 over their last 12 games played. In those 7 wins, Winston is averaging 10.0 points and 5.5 assists per game. Those numbers dip to 3.0 and 3.2 respectively in the team’s 5 losses. Simply put, Izzo needs an offensive spark, especially in a game against a team like Miami that prides itself on defense (63.7 PPG allowed – 21st in NCAA).
2. LINE CHANGE: Izzo having to shuffle the lineups, pregame and in-game, is well-documented. Things are not about to change against a Hurricanes club that offers much more size inside than do the Spartans.
Miami head coach Jim Larranaga has multiple bigs at his disposal, all of which receiver considerable playing time. Senior Kamari Murphy (6-foot-8) plays close to 30 minutes per game. Sophomore Ebuka Izundu (6-foot-10, 12.9 MPG) and freshman Dewan Huell (6-foot-11, 17.7 MPG) also find their way in the rotation.
It may not be so much their production that is lethal, but more so their presence inside that forces teams to second-guess driving the lane for a closer, higher-chance shot, versus settling for outside. MSU may be stuck doing the latter, simply because they don’t have the size nor rotation… unless someone like Nick Ward can stay out of foul trouble.
3. TRAINING WHEELS OFF: This is something that perhaps cannot be proven with statistics, but it is worth mentioning. The pressure on Izzo and Michigan State coming in was whether or not they would get in on the strength of freshmen.
Well now they are in, and they can play pressure-free and let the kids play with little to no restraints.
At season’s end, the MSU Class of 2016 freshman — Miles Bridges, Joshua Langford and the aforementioned Ward and Winston — are not only four of the team’s top five scorers, but are responsible for better than 56 percent of the team’s per game scoring output. And that’s with only one of them (Bridges) averaging north of 30 minutes per contest. Langford and Winston are each averaging 20.5 minutes, and Ward is under the 20-mark (which makes his season averages look even more impressive).
Don’t be surprised if come Friday night out in Tulsa, that Tom Izzo rolls out a starting lineup of his four freshmen horses plus the team’s lone senior in Alvin Ellis III.
OTHER IMPORTANT STATS TO KNOW:
- This is the eighth time in their 20 straight years dancing that Michigan State is seeding No. 6 or lower, holding an 8-7 record. It’s only the second time as a 9-seed (2007, went 1-1).
- This will be just the second all-time meeting between the Spartans and Hurricanes since 1949-50. The first was back in November of 2012 during the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, a game where Miami upended No. 13 MSU at home, 67-59.
DSN STAFF PREDICTIONS:
- DANIEL DYLAN BAIR – Michigan State 68, Miami 60
- JOEY BERNHARDT – Michigan State 73, Miami 65
- KY CARLIN – Michigan State 72, Miami 59
- JEFF DEACON – Michigan State 68, Miami 62
- DON DRYSDALE – Michigan State 72, Miami 67
- ALEXANDER MULLER – Michigan State 64, Miami 59
- A.J. REILLY – Michigan State 74, Miami 72
- ERIC VINCENT – Michigan State 71, Miami 65
- MICHAEL WHITAKER – Miami 80, Michigan State 68