Michigan State coach Tom Izzo says his Spartans "are a championship team" as they enter the NCAA Tournament. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — Michigan State is playing in the NCAA Tournament for the 22nd straight season, and Tom Izzo wants to be clear — he’s grateful for that.
The Spartans are in that position after earning a 2-seed in the East Region, beginning Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa, against No. 15 Bradley.
“Twenty-two years in this tournament has made me proud,” Izzo said Monday. “It’s a streak that I plan on keeping as long as I’m alive, but it’s one of the favorite things we’ve done. … I think it’s safe to say that no one will have an easy road, but this team has shown tremendous mental toughness and resiliency all year.”
When pulling back and looking at the tournament as a whole, that resiliency will be necessary if the Spartans are to reach a 10th Final Four in program history. That’s because they got a tough draw from the tournament committee. After following up a regular-season Big Ten championship by winning the conference tournament title on Sunday, the Spartans were seeded No. 6 overall and, because the committee uses geography when placing teams in the bracket, it sent Michigan State to the East.
The only problem with that? No. 1 overall seed Duke happens to be in the East, as well. The move drew plenty of criticism from around the country Sunday night and Monday morning. ESPN analyst Dick Vitale called it “ridiculous and absurd,” while ESPN's bracket analyst said the committee made a mistake with Spartans and Wolverines.
“Yes, Michigan State should be in the West," Lunardi said. “Yes, the committee probably goofed with the Wolverines and the Spartans. But, I think Michigan State's a tough matchup for Duke, and it may have been Duke that was disadvantaged by this potential Elite Eight pairing.”
In fact, Lunardi, along with ESPN’s Jay Bilas and Andy Katz of NCAA.com, think Michigan State will beat Duke in the regional final and reach the Final Four in Minneapolis.
And that’s what Michigan State will worry about as it prepares to take on Bradley, the champions of the Missouri Valley Conference.
“Seeding and bracket concerns are comparably minor topics when you really look at the big picture,” Izzo said. “Everyone always spends the first few days talking about the bracket, talking about the seedings, then Shazam, the tournament starts and there’s 10 upsets in the first two weeks and sometimes the first week, and it all kind of evens out.
“This is what I’ve decided we’re looking at: We’re a championship team despite having the smallest margin of error because we focused on what is immediately in front of us. We’re gonna do the same and focus on Bradley.”
That doesn’t mean Izzo is fired up about Michigan State being in the same bracket as the No. 1 overall seed after what the Spartans accomplished this season: the regular-season and tournament championships in the Big Ten, and 13 Quadrant 1 wins, most in the nation.
Tennessee, which is the No. 5 overall seed, had nine Quad 1 wins and did not win the SEC regular-season or tournament title.
“The selection process continues to be a moving target, which I don’t understand,” Izzo said. “As a coach, there are three main things that I think are important in this selection. I’ve learned over the years who you schedule is one. That is a big one — who … do … you … schedule? And are you scheduling right? If you are, that’s a plus. If you schedule right and win, that’s even a bigger plus. And championships have to count for something. I mean, they have to count for something. That’s what everybody’s trying to do — win a championship, be better than anyone else in that league. And to win two of them, I think it speaks volumes.”
Izzo also isn’t a fan of the committee relying on geography to place teams.
After No. 5 overall seed Tennessee was awarded the South Region played in Louisville, it was between the East Region in Washington D.C. or the Midwest Region played in Kansas City for Michigan State. By virtue of it being roughly 120 miles closer to Michigan State’s campus, the Spartans were sent to Washington.
A more standard S-curve would place the No. 1 overall seed against No. 8, No. 2 vs. No. 7, No. 3 vs. No. 6 and No. 4 vs. No. 5. In that scenario, Michigan State would have been in the Midwest with North Carolina.
Committee chairman Bernard Muir said on Sunday night that it followed the principles and the committee doesn’t necessarily look at matchups.
That creates the problem that exists now for Michigan State.
“The emphasis shouldn’t be placed on geography, but it should be placed on rewarding teams that have performed and what their performance is,” Izzo said. “We’re splitting hairs over what we can be over 10 more minutes in a plane, 100 more miles.”
Izzo allowed himself a few minutes Monday to let his feelings be known but wanted to quickly get back to worrying about preparing to face Bradley and attempting to get out of the first weekend of the tournament for the first time since 2015 when the Spartans reached the Final Four.
He’ll do so with a banged-up team, one that likely won’t have junior Kyle Ahrens after he suffered a nasty sprain of his left ankle in Sunday’s victory over Michigan in the Big Ten tournament championship.
But the Spartans have overcome injuries all season, something Izzo believes has them ready to handle whatever they might face over the next three weeks.
“I’m appreciative that I’m in the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “It’s been 22 straight years, and not one of those 22 years have I taken anything for granted. I think it’s apropos that maybe this team has been through adversity all year, and so another curve has been thrown — unfortunately, it’s not the S-curve.
“And I will play whoever they tell me to play — I’ll play them anyplace, anywhere, anytime, just like I’ve done my entire career.”
No. 2 Michigan State vs. No. 15 Bradley
When: Thursday, 2:45 p.m.
Where: Wells Fargo Arena, Des Moines, Iowa
TV/radio: CBS/WJR 760
Records: Michigan State 28-6, Bradley 20-14
Next up: Winner faces winner between No. 7 Louisville and No. 10 Minnesota