The Michigan State Spartans were supposed to be in rebuilding mode when they helped tip off the college basketball season back on the aircraft carrier in San Diego on November 11. A loss that night to North Carolina and four nights later to Duke at Madison Square Garden, were nothing to be ashamed of, but nor was there anything to suggest Tom Izzo’s team would become a Big Ten leader and national title contender—particularly when conference favorite Ohio State smoked Duke by 22 points in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge. But then things changed.
Izzo’s tough non-conference opening helped his young team mature quickly and his own coaching savvy began to piece together a lineup rotation. Michigan State has only one clear star, power forward Draymond Green, who averages 15 points/11 rebounds/4 assists per game. And the team has only one other double-digit scorer, in sophomore guard Keith Appling, at 12 ppg. But depth and the classic Michigan State formula of attacking the glass has this team sitting on an 11-3 conference record, sole possession of first place and a projected #2 seed in the NCAA Tournament by ESPN.com bracketologist Joe Lunardi.
Michigan State only has two other players who average 20-plus minutes a game, forward Branden Dawson and guard Brandon Wood. The latter is a good shooter from the perimeter, but while his three-point range isn’t bad, nor is it a strength. Dawson chips in some rebounding help. Where the Spartans draw their strength is use of the entire lineup and they have four players who give Izzo 18-19 quality minutes a night. Derrick Nix at 6’9” and Adreian Payne at 6’10” provide the height that prevents teams from focusing exclusively on Green below, and the Nix/Payne combo is good for eight extra rebounds a night. In the backcourt Travis Trice and Austin Thornton only score five points apiece, but they both shoot better than 40 percent from behind the arc, making them a key X-factor in the one-game shots that are the NCAA Tournament.
The Spartans suffered all three of their conference losses in January, all were on the road, all were to good teams (Northwestern, Michigan, Illinois—before the Illini collapsed), and the latter two were by a combined three points. Since Super Bowl Sunday Michigan State has been a roll, and against the best the conference has to offer.
Michigan State beat Michigan by ten shortly before America watched the Patriots-Giants. The Spartans dominance of the glass was stunning, even by their standards, beating the Wolverines 39-15 on the boards, 16 of them by Green. A similar 41-22 edge keyed a pounding of Penn state. Then the game that really opened up eyes was a 58-48 win at Ohio State that moved Sparty into a tie for first, thanks to holding the Buckeyes to 26 percent shooting. The defense stayed in clampdown mode at home against Wisconsin, holding Jordan Taylor to 3-of-13 and the Badgers as a whole to 34 percent. Then on Sunday, Michigan State pulled away from a desperate Purdue team playing on its home floor, thanks to more tough defense—34 percent shooting for the Boilers and a 38-27 rebounding edge for the Spartans.
When you’re playing tough defense, forcing missed shots and rebounding the misses, it stands to reason you’ll win a lot of games. When you have depth it stands to reason you can survive the long haul-be it a 16-game conference schedule, or a 6-game NCAA Tournament. If you have a clear go-to player it stands to reason you can win a one-game shot.
So is this is an endorsement for Michigan State to win a national title? If this were an NBA playoff system, I’d probably lean their way, because I think in a best-of-seven situation their weaknesses behind the three-point line would be minimized and their strengths maximized. In a single-elimination format though, losing a three-point battle can kill you. I suspect if MSU is to win Izzo’s second national championship there will be at least one or two games where Trice or Thornton will have to contribute beyond what they’ve done so far this year, or somebody else will have to show an outside touch they haven’t yet shown. That’s why I’m not quite ready to go national championship. But viable contender? Absolutely. Big Ten champ? Why not. And that’s a heckuva lot more than any of us thought possible on that electric night on the San Diego carrier against North Carolina.
NEW MEXICO PULLS AWAY IN MOUNTAIN WEST
Another team no one expected to be at the top of the conference standings in late February is New Mexico. Yet Steve Alford’s team is not only leading the Mountain West, they’re in complete command, holding a two-game lead on UNLV and San Diego State.
The Lobos didn’t start strong, losing November games to New Mexico State and Santa Clara, and then barely escaping a terrible Arizona State squad. They got respectable wins over Missouri State and Oklahoma State and then a New Year’s Eve win over St. Louis, a victory that looks better with each day the Billikens push closer to the NCAA Tournament. But it’s in conference play that New Mexico has really stood out. They’ve split the four games with their two main rivals, but while Vegas and San Diego State have stumbled in bad spots, New Mexico has not. The Lobos are 3-0 against Colorado State and Wyoming, both still harboring hopes of the NCAAs themselves.
Senior power forward Drew Gordon is the star of this team with a 13/11 nightly average, while 6’7” Tony Snell is a tall perimeter player that can use his height to get his shot, and he hits 42 percent from three-point range. Kendall Williams is a good playmaker, at a solid shooter that teams can’t back off on defensively. There’s not a ton of depth, making the recent legal problems of senior forward A.J. Hardeman an even bigger concern. But if Hardeman is cleared to play after his recent arrest, New Mexico will be a threat in March.
A game tonight against a hungry Colorado State team that has to win is going to be tough, particularly coming off a week where New Mexico beat UNLV and San Diego State in succession. But even with a loss, that still leaves the Lobos with a one-game lead and three easy games to close the schedule.
New Mexico is currently projected as a #6 seed by Lunardi. If you compare them to projected #11s like UConn ,Long Beach State, Xavier and Washington, it’s certainly feasible to win a first-round game—I’d pick them over UConn or Xavier, not against Long Beach or Washington. Getting through the second round would be a war—it’s tough to see them beating 3-seeds like Marquette, Georgetown, Baylor or Michigan. Winning one game in the NCAA Tournament would be a significant deal for Alford’s team and two wins would likely require a big upset in a 3-14 game.
Whatever happens in March though, New Mexico is like Michigan State, in that they’re standing in a position where no one thought they’d be four months ago and for that they deserve all the credit.