DETROIT — Michigan State began the basketball season ranked No. 2 in the county. It has spent time at No. 1, never been outside the top 10 and only been ranked outside the top 5 teams for two weeks. The Spartans won 29 of 33 games and the Big Ten regular-season title for the eighth time under coach Tom Izzo.
So, why is there a nagging “Yeah, but…” about this team as it prepares to play Bucknell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at Little Caesars Arena on Friday?
“We’ve got a four-loss team. It’s not like it’s a seven-loss team, and sometimes you feel like you have to apologize,” said Matt Steigenga, radio analyst for the Spartan Sports Network. “Maybe that’s because we didn’t go undefeated in the Big Ten? A lot of it was we lost twice to our rival [Michigan], so you have every right to have concerns or have fans complain.
“I guess as long as you win, who cares?”
The Spartans are the No. 3 seed in the Midwest Region behind No. 1 Kansas and No. 2 Duke, a team that has caused Izzo so many restless nights in the past. Duke is 11-1 against Michigan State in the Izzo era, including an 88-81 win in Chicago on Nov. 14 in a matchup of the two top-ranked teams in the country. They could face each other again in the Sweet 16 next week in Omaha, Neb., if they each survive this first weekend.
Kansas and Duke won their openers on Thursday. Kansas beat No. 16 Penn 76-60, while Duke beat Iona 89-67.
The high expectations heaped upon Michigan State revolve around the return of four sophomores who came in last season as the highest-rated recruiting class in Izzo’s 23-year tenure. Forward Miles Bridges turned his back on NBA millions to come back. Forward Nick Ward, guard Josh Langford and point guard Cassius Winston have been joined by freshman forward Jaren Jackson Jr., a McDonald’s All-American as a senior in high school who became the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year.
The bench goes another five deep.
“If someone said, ‘Michigan State is going to win the national title,’ I’d say, ‘Yeah, that’s a good pick,’ ” Turner Sports NCAA analyst Steve Lavin told Cox Media Group/Land of 10. “This is Tom Izzo’s deepest Michigan State team. It’s the best shooting team he’s coached. [Overall No. 1 seed] Virginia and Michigan State have been near the top of the defensive rankings all year but Michigan State has more firepower on offense than Virginia does.”
The Final Four and National Championship Game will be televised on TBS this year. Michigan State was most recently in the Final Four in 2015.
“We’ve been called ‘overrated’ a lot, so we just want to go out here and prove ourselves,” Bridges said. “With this tournament, with this bracket, we have to go through a lot of good teams. If we win the national championship, they’re going to be able to say we earned it.”
Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985 (and is now 68), a No. 3 seed has reached the Final Four 15 times with 10 championship game appearances. Four teams seeded No. 3 have won national titles.
Oregon went to the Final Four as a No. 3 seed last year. Connecticut was the last No. 3 seed to win the national championship, when it beat Butler for the title in 2011. The other No. 3 seeds to win it all were: Florida (2006), Syracuse (2003) and Michigan (1989).
Michigan State has the talent and intangibles to become the fifth team on that list.
“I don’t think there’s much difference between a 3 and a 2 other than what color uniforms you’re going to wear when you play each other if you meet,” Steigenga said. “Were they underseeded? My only defense, if that’s true, is if we’re ranked fourth or fifth in the country, how do you get a 3 seed? I know it based on strength of schedule but, yeah, a little bit.
“Maybe we are but I assume there’s been a 3 seed that’s won the title before, and lower, so at the end of the day it doesn’t matter.”