Michigan State coach Tom Izzo might know what he’s getting into, but none of his players have ever been in this position.
For the first time since 2011, the Spartans (18-13, 10-8 Big Ten) will have to play their way into the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament. This will be the fourth time since the tourney’s inception that MSU will partake in a Thursday game.
Izzo’s program has a reputation to uphold. Never before has it failed to play in the quarterfinals. To keep that streak going, the fifth-seeded Spartans will have to take down the Nebraska-Penn State winner.
To win the tournament, Michigan State would need four victories in four days at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C. One team has achieved that feat since the tournament began in 1998: the Iowa Hawkeyes in 2001.
So it’s not impossible. Anyway, Spartans fans likely care less about a Big Ten Tournament title than about securing the program’s 20th consecutive NCAA Tournament berth.
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) March 6, 2017
It won’t be easy by any means. Michigan State will hope it ends up facing a struggling Nebraska team against which it seized its only road win of 2017. The alternative is a Penn State squad that caused the Spartans problems with its aggressive backcourt in a Nittany Lions win earlier in the year.
Should MSU move on it would face Minnesota, which it beat twice in regular-season play. One of the toughest things to do in basketball, coaches will tell you, is to beat a team three times.
Beyond that, Izzo’s team could end up playing Illinois, Michigan or Purdue, each of which beat the Spartans in their last meeting. The Boilermakers, a nightmare matchup for a small MSU team, would be the least-favorable draw. But if the Spartans make it to the semifinals, fatigue will make any game difficult.
Michigan State likely will enter the next stage of the postseason with 14 losses. However, it must avoid another bad loss to join its stumble against Northeastern from earlier in the season.
The only way the Spartans fall out of the NCAA Tournament might be a blowout loss to Nebraska or Penn State that fails the selection committee’s oft-cited “eye test.” One win surely would seal their tourney ticket.
But when your jerseys say “Michigan State” you have bigger goals. The Spartans have won the tournament five times, more than any other program. They won it last year and they’ve won it three of the last five years. Don’t think that they’ll count themselves out just because they have to play an extra game.
We don’t know whom the Spartans will face on Thursday, but it will be a battered and beaten squad. Penn State has lost five games in a row, while Nebraska has lost four in a row, all by double figures.
Either team would give Michigan State freshman big man Nick Ward an opportunity to establish himself down low, as neither Nebraska nor Penn State offers the most formidable post presence.
The issue, particularly against Penn State, will be whether the MSU guards can protect the ball. PSU ranks second in the conference in steals per game, while the Huskers place fourth.
Player to watch
Nick Ward. How will he respond to being snubbed from the Big Ten All-Freshman Team? Will he even care? He might not need any added motivation considering how well he’s been playing of late.
In the last four games of the regular season, Ward averaged 18.8 points and 10 rebounds per game. Now he enters a tournament in which he’ll likely be heavily relied upon.
This could be Ward’s first experience playing multiple games in a row since November. We could learn a lot about the freshman’s stamina in D.C.
Michigan State enters the tournament at 18-13 overall and 10-8 in the Big Ten. It has lost two straight games and three of the last five.
|Player||Games played||Points per game||Rebounds per game||Assists per game||Field goal%|
|Alvin Ellis III||31||6.7||3.0||1.3||.422|
|Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr.||31||3.8||2.5||3.6||.447|
|Matt Van Dyk||29||1.3||1.8||0.4||.538|
* Harris suffered a season-ending knee injury against Purdue.
The last time Michigan State failed to earn an NCAA Tournament berth (1997), three of its current freshmen had not been born: Miles Bridges, Nick Ward and Cassius Winston.