Des Moines, Iowa — Both are No. 2 seeds with gaudy records, about to face unheralded 15 seeds. Both pummeled most opponents, and under normal circumstances, they might be popular Final Four picks.
Michigan and Michigan State chased each other all season, the Spartans ahead, the Wolverines trying to catch up. They chased each other all the way here, to the heartland, for first-round NCAA Tournament matchups Thursday.
The question for the Spartans (28-6) and Wolverines (28-6) isn’t whether they’re good enough to make a run. By ranking and reputation, they’re arguably better than anybody not named Duke, North Carolina, Virginia or Gonzaga. The question, fair or not, is whether both learned and grew from their lowest moments.
Michigan State’s demon is three years in the making, three straight early NCAA exits, including last year’s crusher, 55-53 to Syracuse. The Spartans don’t like to belabor it but they can’t forget it, not even after winning the Big Ten regular-season and tournament titles. Not until they take the next step on the next journey, Thursday against 19-point underdog Bradley.
Michigan’s demon is three games in the making, three losses to Michigan State this season. In all three, the Wolverines built early leads, frittered away possessions with bad shots and buckled against the Spartans’ pressure. So should the Wolverines be judged on their 28-3 mark against everybody except Michigan State, or are they vulnerable because of their occasional offensive doldrums? We begin to find out Thursday, against Montana, a rematch of last year’s NCAA Tournament opener.
'We understand who we are'
It’s an odd perspective for both teams, who are terrific defensively and brimming with possibilities. And yet there’s pause because of perceived flaws. In a good way, that shows how expectations and standards keep rising. In a tough way, it can haunt until the next hunt.
“I hope we’re not playing that disrespect card at all,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “They’ve been saying it all year, that this team isn’t good enough to win the league, this team isn’t good enough to beat that team. I don’t think we’ve said, I told you so. We understand who we are and what we are. Our margin for error is tinier than what I can put on my fingers.”
The distance between destiny and disaster always is thinner in March, but this certainly isn’t insurmountable for either team. That’s the point Izzo and Michigan coach John Beilein have hammered, that despair can’t linger.
The Spartans have suffered injuries and at times appear to be riding on fumes and fire. But they have the remarkable Cassius Winston and a maturing cast of perfectly fitting role players. Come on, would anybody be shocked if Michigan State reached the Elite Eight and played Duke tough?
The Wolverines have similar concerns about depth, and while their defense is stifling, their shooting is suspect. But come on, would anybody be shocked if Michigan went on a run similar to last year, when it reached the national championship game?
In the aftermath of the Wolverines’ third straight loss to the Spartans, 65-60 in the Big Ten title game, Beilein felt compelled to remind his team where it could be headed.
“I did sense their heads were down, and I said you got 24 hours to feel sorry for yourselves, then we gotta move on,” Beilein said. “We’re one of the top eight teams in the country and we weren’t even picked in the top 25. We got a chance to have a great season, we’re not gonna let (the Michigan State loss) determine our season.”
The fun part about the NCAA Tournament is, everyone gets to fill out brackets and forecast what’s going to happen for three weeks. The taxing part is, the favored teams technically still have to beat those underdogs to advance.
While Michigan State’s path to the Final Four is ostensibly blocked by No. 1 Duke, it also can be blocked by Bradley, or Louisville, or Minnesota. In 2016, the Spartans were a No. 2 seed and a popular championship pick and lost one of the all-time stunners, 90-81 to Middle Tennessee State. That might have slipped into the annals of freakish anomalies, but then came last year. The Spartans rode a dominant 30-4 record into their second-round game against Syracuse at Little Caesars Arena, and in the blink of 40 minutes, they were done.
Izzo figures he doesn’t need to mention any of that as motivation, and he probably doesn’t.
“I think last year we got caught up in national championship, national championship, and we promised ourselves this year we were gonna take it one game at a time,” Winston said. “Surprisingly, the pressure is not that high. I’m pretty sure not a lot of people are expecting us to do much. A lot of people feel like we’re gonna wear out and die out eventually. So we’re playing with probably the least pressure we’ve ever had.”
That’s impossible to quantify, but there’s no doubt last year’s team, with NBA first-rounders Jaren Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges, felt the weight. Now the Spartans are more balanced and cohesive, and packed with experience from Winston to seniors Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins.
The target never shrinks, though. Bradley (20-14) is a scrappy, defensive-minded team with capable shooters, including junior point guard Darrell Brown, who sounds and plays fearless.
“(Michigan State) plays fast and physical, just like us,” said Brown, who shoots 44 percent on 3s. “I don’t think talent-wise there’s a separation by any means. I like our chances. We defend the best out of anybody in the country, and once they get out there and play against our defense, they’ll feel like it’s a tough matchup too.”
'We're a great team'
That’s the spirit of an underdog, and it can never be overlooked. Same thing with Montana, 26-8 for the second straight season. The Grizzlies jumped to a 10-0 lead in last year’s first-rounder before Michigan clawed out a 61-47 victory.
Beilein swears this Montana team is even better, with an array of sharpshooters, including senior point guard Ahmaad Rorie. If the Wolverines want to avoid the 2-versus-15 trap, they need to do a better job staying poised and not heaving bad shots. Jordan Poole and Zavier Simpson have been culprits, and they’re also the guys who can fix it.
“In those State games, some guys were trying to make plays they didn’t have to,” forward Isaiah Livers said. “Hero ball can damage this team bad. We’re a great team when we’re playing Michigan basketball and sharing the ball. When everybody has double digits in points, we’re gonna win the game. It’s a flaw that’s already fixed.”
It’s a tough time of year to be fixing flaws, but every team has them. Yes, even Duke. The Wolverines and Spartans are at their best when they’re selfless on offense and fierce on defense. It’s a formula they know well, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if they unleash it again now.