On paper, Michigan State looked the part of a Final Four and national championship contender. On the court, it didn’t always play out that way.
Now, with the NCAA Tournament field complete and the Spartans holding a 3 seed, they will need to finally live up to their potential to make a run at the Final Four (or beyond). In reality, though, they need to do it to play beyond the Sweet Sixteen in the Midwest Region.
Because making a deep run won’t be easy. Not when No. 2 Duke is lurking on the same half of the bracket.
Michigan State already pulled off its first upset of the tournament by getting placed in Detroit for its tournament opener. The Spartans face No. 14 seed Bucknell on Friday.
But the selection committee didn’t do the Spartans any favors beyond that. The Blue Devils are a mirror image of Michigan State from the collection of talent few opponents can match to the inconsistent regular season. They also beat the Spartans 88-81 back in November.
— Big Ten Men's Hoops (@B1GMBBall) March 11, 2018
No. 1 Kansas is lurking as a potential Elite Eight opponent and will be as tough of an out as the Blue Devils. It’s tougher to come up with a harder path to a Final Four than by potentially having to beat two national championship coaches in Kansas’ Bill Self and Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski.
But with Michigan State’s resume, it’s hard to earn a No.1 or No. 2 seed and an easier path through the tournament. Not enough big wins coupled with too many questions about erratic play dogged the Spartans’ season.
Purdue and North Carolina are the only marque victories. A Big Ten Conference short on quality second-tier teams didn’t help, but the Spartans didn’t do themselves any favors, either.
Too often games were closer than expected against inferior opponents and required a late surge to win.
“I don’t think there’s any question that we’re a ways away from our ceiling,” coach Tom Izzo said after a 96-93 win against Iowa on Feb. 6. “Now, as it gets a little deeper you say ‘Are you ever going to get to your ceiling?’ We may not.”
That sentiment still holds true in some corners of the fan base, especially after the Big Ten tournament semifinal loss to Michigan.
Still, this team checks off everything you look for in a national champion.
Title winners are elite squads on both ends of the floor. The last 10 champions averaged an 8.6 adjusted offense and an 8.4 adjusted defense rating at KenPom.com. Michigan State and Duke are the only teams in the top 10 in both categories this season.
Basketball, more so than other sports, is about star power. The NCAA Tournament is no different. Forwards Jaren Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges certainly qualify. Each is a likely first-round pick.
Only Duke (four) and Kentucky (three) have more first-round players, according to NBAdraft.net.
This team won a program-record 29 regular-season games, won an outright Big Ten title, and can match up with any style of play because of its length, rim-protection, athleticism, perimeter shooting, point guard play and depth.
Michigan State can play with — and beat — any team in the country. Few other teams in the bracket can say that — or that it hasn’t yet peaked.
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 11, 2018
There is a lot to like about the Spartans, but they never put everything together during the regular season. It’s part of the reason why the path to the Final Four isn’t easy.
If you told Michigan State fans back in November the team was a No. 3 seed, they likely wouldn’t believe you.
It didn’t mesh with the expectations of the season.
Yet, here the team is, with one key preseason hope still alive.
Those Final Four and national championship aspirations are very real. Everything is in place for the Spartans to have a month to remember.
They must earn it, though. It won’t be a problem if they find that elusive ceiling.