Michigan State is getting hot at the right time

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Charlotte, N.C. — A year ago, Michigan State was the trendy pick to win the national championship.

Even President Barack Obama had the Spartans penciled in as champs in his bracket, and after rolling to the Big Ten tournament title with a potent — and healthy — lineup, not many people were arguing.

Move ahead a year and Michigan State is the No. 7 seed in the East Regional preparing for its second-round game today against No. 10 Georgia. And while there are some out there listing the Spartans as a "sleeper" pick to reach the Final Four, not many have the same feeling about them as they did a year ago.

"It doesn't really bother us," said senior guard Travis Trice, who's handled all sorts of expectations as he begins his fourth and final NCAA Tournament. "Because no matter where they have us picked … you saw us last year and everybody picked us to win it and we didn't. ... I'd rather be the hunter than the hunted."

It was the same approach Michigan State used entering the Big Ten tournament last week, and it came seconds from winning a second straight title. Michigan State rolled over Ohio State, rallied to beat Maryland and had Wisconsin down in the final seconds before losing in overtime.

But the fact is, the Spartans have been rounding into shape for the last month or so.

In the last 11 games, Michigan State is 8-3, with two losses coming to Wisconsin. It's been a stark turnaround from when Michigan State was 15-8 following a home loss to Illinois.

"I think a month ago for the first time in a long time there was a little question mark," coach Tom Izzo said. "We were struggling a little bit. ... But I think we're getting to the point where we're playing our best basketball at the end of the year and that's kind of the way you want it.

"We put some things together and I thought the last five games against very good teams, all NCAA teams, we might have played the best we played on a consistent basis all year."

It has allowed Michigan State to start talking like most Michigan State teams do this time of year.

"We already knew what we could do," junior Matt Costello said. "Our goal the whole year was to get to Indianapolis, and that wasn't false hope."

The Spartans also notice they are a seven seed, the same as last year's champion Connecticut, which eliminated Michigan State in the Elite Eight.

"We were actually talking last night and looking at their schedule," junior guard Denzel Valentine said. "It was a rough route for them. They played a tough team every single game before they won the championship. But we've been battle-tested all year and I think we can go out and make a run."

That's not exactly the refrain coming from the other side.

Georgia finished tied for third in the Southeastern Conference before losing in the tournament semifinals. It was the second straight 20-win season for the Bulldogs, but this is their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament since 2011.

Only senior Marcus Thornton played on that team, and understands Georgia's expectations are different than those at Michigan State.

"This is a team that has always had the goal of winning NCAA Tournament games," Thornton said. "We believe that we have a team that is capable of doing that. We know that Michigan State definitely has a ton of experience with 18 consecutive years in the field, so we have a ton of respect for that and obviously that's going to be a great challenge."

Michigan State insists it won't look ahead to a potential rematch against Virginia on Sunday, but the odds are in its favor.

The Spartans are 18-6 in the round of 64 since the Tournament expanded in 1985, and Izzo is 13-4.

The last time it lost the opener was to George Mason in 2006.

That was a Cinderella team. Georgia is not, having played No. 1 Kentucky as close as any team.

"I like the fact that we're playing a good team," Izzo said.