Michigan State faces Marist in the first round of the NCAA Women's Tournament. (John T. Greilick/Detroit News)
East Lansing — Michigan State women's coach Suzy Merchant is full of surprises.
Here's one: Did anyone know she's the resident expert on Marist?
Merchant will learn more this week than she already knows about the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference perennial powerhouse, as she prepares her fifth-seeded Spartans (24-8) for the 12th-seeded Red Foxes (26-6) in the first round of the NCAA Women's Tournament Saturday in College Park, Md.
The bracket was announced Monday, and the suspense ended early for the Spartans.
"We know we're capable of making a run, and I think that needs to be our mind-set," said senior Jasmine Thomas (10.4 points, 5.3 rebounds).
It is the fifth consecutive Tournament appearance for the Spartans, and 10th in 11 seasons. Michigan state is 9-2 in the first round.
Merchant has watched plenty of Marist basketball, and has great respect for coach Brian Giorgis, who has led the Red Foxes to their eighth consecutive conference title and ninth in 10 years. Marist was 18-0 in conference.
"They're extremely well-coached and play a style that's very difficult to defend," Merchant said. "They have a system and style that's very effective, much like in a lot of ways maybe some of the things Kevin (Borseth) used to do at Michigan, that motion type, everybody can shoot it, pass it, handle it. (That) makes it difficult."
Marist, led by MAAC tournament MVP Elizabeth Beynnon, hasn't lost since Dec. 30 at Kentucky, a 21-game winning streak. Marist led the MAAC in a number of categories, including scoring defense (52.2 points), scoring margin (plus-12.2), shooting percentage defense (35 percent) and 3-point defense (25.6 percent). The Red Foxes were second in the conference in scoring offense (64.4).
But, Marist faces a seasoned Michigan State team that finished strong, despite losing to Purdue in the Big Ten tournament title game.
In Michigan State's run to the final, it defeated No. 8 Penn State. And in the second-to-last regular-season game, it won at then-No. 22 Purdue. Quality victories against ranked opponents down the stretch has given the Spartans — who opened 13-1 — a nice confidence boost.
"I felt good about the way we finished and how hard we fought," Merchant said. "They're not done and they're ready to move forward."
Merchant, who is not one to sit still long, gave her team a day off last Monday before returning to practice a week ago, and gave them a break last weekend before heading into Tournament preparations.
"The biggest thing for us, we need to do a good job night in and night out defensively," Merchant said. "That's what we've laid our hat on a little bit where maybe sometimes our offense hasn't been there, our defense has helped us get through some times. For us, everything starts with defense and rebounding. That's the one thing they got out of the tournament — it was there twice, it wasn't there the third night, and we suffered."
Michigan State led the Big Ten in rebounding margin and in scoring defense, holding teams to 51.6 points.
The Spartans held 17 teams under 50 points this season.
Michigan State vs. Marist
Tip-off: 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Comcast Center,College Park, Md.
Records : No. 5 Michigan State 24-8, No. 12 Marist 26-6
Notable: This is Suzy Merchant 's sixth trip to the NCAA Tournament — the last five at Michigan State and once at Eastern Michigan (2004).