Michigan State scoping out circuitous path to a No. 1 seed

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Chicago — There’s a championship on the line Sunday when Michigan State takes on Michigan in the Big Ten tournament championship game.

But for the Spartans, there appears to be a path toward a possible No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. That field won’t be revealed until 6 p.m. on Sunday after the third matchup of the season between the Spartans and Wolverines, and that will be the focus.

Michigan State's Kenny Goins (25) celebrates with Foster Loyer after shooting a 3-point basket during the first half of Saturday's semifinal win over Wisconsin.

However, you can bet there will be an eye toward the pairings if No. 6 Michigan State is able to pull of the season sweep of Michigan after beating the Wolverines twice in the regular season.

Early this week, ESPN bracket analyst Joe Lunardi said if Michigan State was to win in Chicago and capture both the regular-season and tournament championship, the Spartans “have to at least get some serious discussion to get up to that top line.”

“I think there's basically three scenarios for two spots on the top line,” Lunardi said. “Virginia is going to be a one. No matter what people are saying about last night (losing to Saint Mary's in the West Coast final), Gonzaga is going to be the one in the West. So that leaves an ACC spot, Duke-(North) Carolina in my view, an SEC spot and Michigan State is a wild card.”

With wins over Ohio State and Wisconsin, Michigan State has done its job so far. And while it wasn’t exactly the scenario Lunardi had, Kentucky’s loss to Tennessee on Saturday helps push the door open just a bit more.

Lunardi spelled out is path for Michigan State before the conference tournaments began.

“One, Kentucky losing before the championship game of the SEC tournament, preferably for Michigan State's case to someone other than Tennessee,” Lunardi explained. “Two, Michigan State has to win the Big Ten tournament. And three, the committee still has to be working and building brackets late in the afternoon on Sunday to reflect that.”

The last time Michigan State was in this position was 2016 when a Big Ten tournament title meant a possible top seed in the NCAA Tournament. Michigan State beat Purdue but still drew a No. 2 seed, a spot that didn’t work out well as the Spartans were upset by 15-seed Middle Tennessee State in the first round.

Of course, NCAA seeding was not on the minds of the Spartans on Saturday afternoon.

“This school is a winning school. That’s what we do. That’s the mindset,” sophomore Xavier Tillman said. “Coach Izzo having his 600th win yesterday just means how important winning is to this school. That’s just the culture of Michigan State basketball. We’re going to play hard, we’re going to try to outwork each other, out-tough you and win some important games.”

Infraction averted

Before Iron Mountain played in the Division 3 state championship game at the Breslin Center on Saturday, two of the schools most famous alums — Izzo and Steve Mariucci — planned to pay for the team’s dinner on Friday night.

But a last-minute call from MSU compliance director Jennifer Smith helped Izzo dodge a bullet with the NCAA.

“Lo and behold, the NCAA doesn’t let me do that,” Izzo said on Saturday.

It’s not like many Iron Mountain players would be potential recruits, but it was still a no-no in the eyes of the NCAA. Izzo, not surprisingly, thought it was silly.

“I’m still disappointed we look at it that way from an NCAA standpoint, but Jennifer Smith saved me,” Izzo said. “With all the things going on, I think paying for your hometown meal would be really big on the Richter scale.”

It wasn’t all bad. Izzo just dropped the tab on the former Lions coach.

“Mooch is out the money,” Izzo said laughing. “It’s a double-win for me.”

Dunking duds

Xavier Tillman missed a dunk in the final seconds of the first half on Saturday, a bucket that would have given Michigan State a 10-point lead and plenty of momentum.

Missing dunks is something Tillman has been battling this season, but he and the rest of the team found the humor in it after the win over Wisconsin.

“I found out what happened with Xavier and I didn’t know until after the game that he has a fear of heights,” Izzo said. “So, he gets up and closes his eyes and he’s missed a few all year.”

Added Cassius Winston, “That’s like his fourth time doing it. The last game somebody stopped and almost let him dunk and he still missed it. So, we’re giving him a lot of crap for that.”

Tillman took the ribbing in stride.

“They told me I got really high on the dunk,” Tillman said. “I didn’t know. I’m so used to being a guy that can’t jump and I’m reaching up. So, to be able to be up and put the ball in the rim like that is different.”

Slam dunks

Injuries have been with Michigan State all season and have continued this week in Chicago.

Winston said he tweaked his sprained toe on Saturday and Kyle Ahrens hit the ground hard in the first half, jarring his back and limiting him to less than eight minutes of action.

“Kyle Ahrens (got hurt) as you saw,” Izzo said. “We knew he wouldn’t do much today and probably zero tomorrow.”

… Michigan State held Wisconsin to a .353 field goal percentage (24-of-68), the Badgers’ second-lowest shooting percentage of the season.

… The Spartans have a 10-3 record as the No. 1 seed at the Big Ten tournament.


Twitter: @mattcharboneau