East Lansing — The national championship has been the goal for Michigan State since before the season started, and on Sunday night the Spartans found out what the path looks like to achieve that goal.
And after days of sweating what the NCAA Tournament selection committee might think of the Spartans’ overall resume, the Big Ten champions will get to stay close to home by beginning play at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.
Michigan State earned the No. 3 seed in the Midwest Region of the NCAA Tournament and will open play at 7:10 p.m. Friday in Detroit against No. 14 Bucknell of the Patriot League.
“I was a little surprised,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I didn’t think we’d end up (in Detroit). It seemed like the way things were going — I didn’t follow the bracket like I normally would — but there was so much noise out there about where everyone was going and what was gonna happen.
“I’m excited that we’re in Detroit but everything is just normal, great. I think the kids will be motivated to play in Detroit, not that you need any more motivation this time of year, but I know for some of them it’s gonna be special.”
It is the 21st straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament, the third-longest active streak behind Kansas (29) and Duke (23).
But this time, the expectations will be as high as they’ve ever been. There have been some seasons Michigan State entered the tournament as the favorite and some it hasn’t. Where the Spartans stand now is hard to say, but the high expectations were put there by themselves.
It began when Miles Bridges announced last April he was coming back for his sophomore season with a goal of winning it all and the Spartans haven’t backed away from that all year.
“That day I wanted to speak things into existence,” Bridges said. “Now it’s here so we just have to grind, work hard, practice, watch a lot of film and get better because Bucknell is a good team.”
The Spartans (29-4) enter the NCAA Tournament without a lot of momentum.
After winning 13 in a row, Michigan State was ousted in the Big Ten tournament semifinals by Michigan. Since then, there’s been plenty of downtime and plenty of criticism thrown at the Spartans, who won the Big Ten regular-season championship by a game.
Cassius Winston and Miles Bridges talk about opening the NCAA Tournament at Little Caesars Arena and other topics. Matt Charboneau, Detroit News
But some tight games down the stretch led to some to wonder how good Michigan State is.
“I said I didn't think we've reached our ceiling at all, and I said sometimes you never reach your ceiling,” Izzo said. “You know, winning 13 in a row or whatever we did and then losing a game and losing to your rival, I think that said something to a few of those guys and maybe, I won’t say they were getting fat and sassy because I never saw that, but maybe casual on the things that are important.”
And the better part of the last week has been spent focusing on the little things and regaining a focus that might have waned down the stretch.
“Losing that game, especially against a rivalry team, is going to put a chip on our shoulder,” Bridges said. “So, we need to play with some edge. We can’t come into the tournament cocky because that’s how teams get beat.”
The fact they get to do it close to home doesn’t hurt.
This will be the second time the Spartans have played in Little Caesars Arena this season after they beat Oakland on Dec. 16. The game is also another homecoming for sophomore guard Cassius Winston, who won the Mr. Basketball as a senior at UD-Jesuit.
“It will be great that my family will be there, and I’ll try to get as many tickets as I can,” Winston said. “It’s the biggest stage and I’m sure a lot of people will be anticipating it. It’s definitely close to home and there is a huge fan base there. Every little edge, every little advantage you can use, you use all of it.”
If Michigan State happens to get past Bucknell—which won a game as a 14-seed back in 2005 against Kansas —i t could play TCU, Syracuse or Arizona State.
Get out of the first weekend and there’s a potential rematch waiting with No. 2 Duke, the team that beat Michigan State at the Champions Classic back in November.
“Just about that much,” Izzo said, holding his fingers an inch apart after being asked if he looked at the bracket that closely. “Our job will be to prepare for the weekend on Monday and Tuesday and then our job will be Wednesday and Thursday, prepare for Bucknell and we'll really hone in on them and definitely not take anybody for granted.”
It all comes back to the original goal — winning it all.
And the Spartans believe they have what it takes.
“Those words led to this moment and now we feel like a contender to win this thing,” Winston said. “A lot of teams can say that is their goal and as a team, it should. But it is a huge difference when dreams come into something that is achievable and
I think right now we’re in a situation where we have the players, we have the coaches, we have all the things we need to make that goal achievable.
“We’ll take it one game at time, play our best basketball each game. Nothing is given but I like our chances.”
Michigan State vs. Bucknell
Tip-off: 7:10 p.m. Friday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit
TV/radio: CBS/760 AM
Records: No. 3 seed Michigan State is 29-4, No. 14 seed Bucknell is 25-9
Next up: Winner faces the winner between No. 6 TCU and the winner of the No. 11 Arizona State and No. 11 Syracuse “First Four” game Sunday.
ALL ABOUT BUCKNELL
Conference: Patriot League
Record: 25-9, 16-2
Coach: Nathan Davis (third year)
Overall seed: 55
How they got in: Patriot League champion
Five Bucknell facts
* Bucknell is making its eight appearance in the NCAA Tournament and has a 2-7 record. The Bison lost last season in the first round to West Virginia.
* There have been 21 teams that have won first-round games as a 14-seed. Bucknell is one, beating No. 3 Kansas in 2005.
* Senior Zach Thomas leads the Patriot League in scoring (20.3 ppg) and rebounds (9.2 rpg).
* Bucknell and Michigan State have two common opponents. While the Spartans beat both North Carolina and Maryland, the Bison dropped a 93-81 decision to North Carolina and lost, 80-78, to Maryland.
* Since the first of the year, Bucknell is 18-2. The Bison closed the season with eight straight victories.