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Wojo: Inconsistent ways leave MSU hard to predict

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News

The next three weeks should produce the most-predictable NCAA Tournament champion ever. According to my fabricated estimates, unbeaten Kentucky is projected as the winner in 97.1 percent of brackets, with the other 2.9 percent choosing Duke out of habit.

That's the easy part. The hard part is figuring out what to do with Michigan State, because this is the least-predictable Tom Izzo team in a long time. If you feel we say that every March, you're wrong. For instance, the Spartans were a four seed last season and were such a fashionable Final Four pick, it became unfashionable to pick 'em.

Now, Michigan State is a seven seed in the East, and not a single outcome would be a surprise. OK, beating Kentucky in the title game would be a surprise. OK, winning a tight game by hitting every free throw in the final two minutes would be a surprise.

But that's both the appeal and the nervous squeal of the Spartans, who supposedly would sweat to reach an 18th consecutive Tournament, but made it easily. When they're good, they're very good. When Branden Dawson, Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine are on, they can be great. The potential was evident in the overtime loss to Wisconsin, and so was the danger.

Clarity will arrive soon enough. Michigan State has tough early matchups — Georgia, then probably Virginia, the best No. 2 seed — but landed in the weakest regional. Not sure this makes sense, but here it is: The Spartans got a bad draw to reach the Sweet 16, but a decent draw to reach the Elite Eight or Final Four. (Just scratch your head and move on.)

Michigan State could lose to Georgia on Friday, and that's not a hollow warning. Georgia battled Kentucky fiercely twice, and has an athletic group that plays defense. On the other hand, Michigan State could beat Georgia and Virginia and then carve a passable path through Oklahoma, Villanova, Louisville or Northern Iowa.

Heartaches, capability

Why is this Michigan State team so hard to measure? Because its constants are hard to measure. One minute, Valentine is a tenacious, smooth-shooting orchestrator, and the next minute he's committing a bizarre late turnover. One half, Trice looks like he can do it all — shoot, drive, create – and the next half he looks spent. One game, Dawson is an absolute beast, and the next game he forgets to feast.

The unpredictability can be tied to one inexplicably horrid statistic — their 63.3 free-throw percentage ranks 330th (out of 345 teams) in the country. The good news is, that's a fixable element. The sobering news is, if it's not fixed after 34 games, maybe it's not fixable.

It contributes to Michigan State's troubling inability to close out games, when concentration and discipline are paramount. That 11-point lead with seven minutes left against Wisconsin was gone in a flurry of mistakes. And because the Spartans don't have the bankable inside power they've had, they rely on outside shooting more than ever.

"We've got some limitations, and we're frustrating at times," Izzo said during the Big Ten tournament. "But learning how to win and how to live up to a standard that's been set for the last 20 years, that makes me feel as good as anything about where our program is."

It's a solid group that doesn't create off-court headaches, just a few on-court heartaches. Give Izzo and his staff credit, because after sitting at 15-8 on Feb. 7, the Spartans got on a roll, and almost every player has shown improvement. Matt Costello has developed into a rugged presence, and freshman Tum Tum Nairn Jr. has provided a spark in the starting lineup. Marvin Clark Jr. and Bryn Forbes are capable of big moments, too.

You just never know when, or where, or from whom. That's the frustration for Izzo, but also the reality of a team not as talented as past editions. Case in point — for all he's added, Nairn Jr. had one basket and zero assists in 50 minutes against Maryland and Wisconsin. With Tum Tum and others, it's wise to pack the Tums.

The Spartans still can crank up the defense and rebounding, but expectations have risen as the shooting has risen. Michigan State actually has become an efficient offensive team — its .471 shooting percentage ranks 31st in the nation (Georgia is 173rd and Virginia 51st) and its .386 3-point percentage is second in the Big Ten and 30th in the country.

The Spartans have proved to be resilient, and are growing their classic calluses.

"I feel great where we're headed right now," Trice said. "We're not down at all. It's March, it's the Tournament, it's what we live for."

Anything can happen

Georgia has a similar feistiness under coach Mark Fox but hasn't beaten anybody of note, unless Mississippi counts as note. Then again, Michigan State isn't exactly flush with defining victories, although beating Wisconsin would've qualified.

Virginia is tremendous, the best defensive team in the country, and would be formidable in a rematch of last year's 61-59 loss to Michigan State. The Spartans are 23-11, and during their 18-year run, have entered Tournament play with double-digit loss totals six previous times, and went 4-6. What does that mean? It means inconsistencies generally don't straighten themselves out in the Tournament.

That's why there's no messing around in this year's bracket, hunting for a plucky upstart. I'm planting a No. 1 seed (Kentucky) and three No. 2s (Virginia, Gonzaga, Arizona) in my Final Four, with Kentucky to beat Gonzaga for the championship.

There's no such thing as a sure thing, but Kentucky is as close as it gets. For most teams, anything can happen. For Michigan State, anything truly means just about anything.