Spartans snubbed as No. 1 but get favorable draw

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Matt Costello, with Denzel Valentine, kisses the Big Ten tournament championship trophy.

Indianapolis – Michigan State got its Big Ten tournament title on Sunday, and in the process, felt like it locked up a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

The only problem was the selection committee didn’t feel the same way, slotting Michigan State as the No. 2 seed in the Midwest region with a first-round matchup against No. 15 Middle Tennessee State at 2:45 p.m. Friday in St. Louis.

The No. 1 seeds went to Kansas (South), North Carolina (East), Virginia (Midwest) and Oregon (West). It would have been Michigan State’s fifth top seed in the NCAA Tournament.

However, following a 66-62 win over Purdue in the Big Ten tournament championship, the Spartans weren’t worrying too much about the number next to their name.

“Yeah, we did (expect to get a No. 1 seed),” senior Matt Costello said. “But that’s not what the selection committee decided and it’s good however it ends up. If we’re closer to home than a one somewhere else, that’s cool. At the end of the day you’ve got to beat the same number of teams as everybody else no matter where you’re seeded.”

Michigan State ended up as the No. 5 overall seed, drawing the obvious comparisons to Oregon, the No. 4 overall seed.

According to Joe Castiglione, the athletic director at Oklahoma and the chair of the Division I men’s basketball committee, it was a close call.

“This, again, was a very difficult conversation,” “I’ll tell you, candidly, I was out of the room part of the time because part of the conversation, as teams were being compared on the seed list, also included Oklahoma. So I found myself out of the room along with my colleague, Mark Hollis. But when it was all said and done and talking with members of our committee, there were additional elements that drove some of those decisions.”

All about MSU first-round foe Middle Tennessee

Hollis, the Michigan State athletic director, could not be present for any discussion about the Spartans, just as Castiglione had to step out during any Sooners conversations.

Ultimately, the numbers spelled out a better case for Oregon.

“In the case of Michigan State — fifth overall seed. Strong, strong team,” Castiglione said. “They’ve been playing well, have their full complement of players back. Obviously won the Big Ten championship today. But compared to say, Oregon, the fourth overall seed, Oregon was the regular season and their tournament champion. They had the No. 1 strength of schedule, No. 2 RPI, 10 wins against the top 50. And Michigan State’s eight top-50 wins and 13 top-100 wins, while very, very good, in the committee’s mind wasn’t enough to move ahead of Oregon.”

The silver lining for Michigan State was the fact it got a pretty good draw.

The Spartans won’t be far from home, playing their first two games in St. Louis. And they’ll head to a second home for many Michigan State fans with the Midwest Regional at the United Center in Chicago.

After that, it’s Houston and the Final Four, if they should get that far.

It’s what Denzel Valentine was telling the crowd at Bankers Life Fieldhouse after the game, and it’s what he and his teammates were thinking about as they prepared to head back to East Lansing.

“We took care of what we could take care of, and we know we got some goals ahead of us,” Costello said. “So let's enjoy this win for a little bit, but we got some work to do.”

Added Valentine, who was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Big Ten tournament: “We've got a tournament championship. It's up to the committee on who they seed so we have no control over that. We're just going to come out and play Michigan State basketball in the tournament.”

To the left of Valentine and Costello, coach Tom Izzo smiled and nodded.

He has the Spartans (29-5) on a roll at the perfect time of the season. And while things haven’t always been perfect, they have won 13 of the last 14 and are now battle-tested after two straight close games in Indianapolis.

And hearing his players talk about the fact there is still work ahead was far more important than worrying about whether his team was a 1-seed or a 2-seed.

2016 NCAA Tournament interactive bracket

“That’s kind of been the MO,” Izzo said. “I don’t look at it as disrespect. There’s got to be a reason for it. I’m most disappointed with this year with what our strength of schedule fell to. The reason I’m disappointed is we played teams like Northeastern that we thought would be really good and win their league. … Those are hard to schedule and you try to put yourself in a good position. We played so many good teams but then played like three 300 (RPI) teams because we couldn’t schedule anybody else.

“All those things we learn from, but like I told you last week, a 1, 2 or 3 didn’t matter then and it still doesn’t matter to me.”

Finding a way to win his second national championship, one that would include a second straight trip to the Final Four and eighth overall, is what ultimately matters to Izzo and the Spartans.

That all remains to be seen, but what is certain is the fact this is the 19th straight tournament appearance for Michigan State, the third-longest active streak in the nation behind Kansas (27) and Duke (21).

Getting out of the first weekend is likely, but from there, it could get dicey.

A potential rematch with 5-seed Purdue looms in the regional final, but if seeding holds, Michigan State could play Virginia for the third straight year. Michigan State was a 4-seed when it beat top-seeded Virginia in the Sweet 16 in 2014, and last year the seventh-seeded Spartans knocked off the second-seeded Cavaliers in the second round.

It all lies ahead, but Valentine made it clear what the goal is over the next three weeks.

“We not done yet, baby,” he told the crowd. “Houston, that’s the goal.”

It’s the next item on the list, and for this group of seniors, it’s the next obvious step after getting to the Sweet 16 as freshmen, the Elite Eight as sophomores, and the Final Four last season as juniors.

“We talk about legacy all the time,” Costello said. “Put your footprint in the sand. We've done it a couple times this year with some records we've broken. But right now we're just trying to win another championship. Again, like I said, happy we won today but we got bigger fish to fry.”

Michigan State vs. Middle Tennessee

What: Midwest Region first-round game

When: Friday, 2:45 p.m.

Where: Scottrade Center, St. Louis

TV / radio: CBS / WJR 760

Records: No. 2 Michigan State 29-5, No. 15 Middle Tennessee 24-9

At stake: Winner meets No. 7 Dayton vs. No. 10 Syracuse winner in a second-round game Sunday