Cassius Winston and Miles Bridges talk about opening the NCAA Tournament at Little Caesars Arena and other topics. Matt Charboneau, Detroit News
East Lansing — It seems like we say it often, and we probably do. But this time, it rings truer than ever.
In a wide-open NCAA Tournament, lacking an overwhelming power, one hot team can do all sorts of damage. And perhaps more any other year, Michigan and Michigan State have shown the same impressive ability to get on a run, and will be fashionable Final Four picks.
Both were awarded three seeds, as expected, down divergent paths. Through the tempest and the tests, the Spartans ended up where they always hoped to be, opening in Detroit on Friday night in the Midwest Regional. It’s the break they craved, although you can debate whether it’s the break they deserved. The Wolverines won the Big Ten tournament and beat the Spartans twice, but were sent to the West Regional in Wichita, opening against Montana.
Michigan gets a tougher trek but not necessarily a tougher bracket, so there’s no sense complaining about it. Thank goodness the selection committee came to its senses and sent at least one local team to Little Caesars Arena, although it comes with a tricky caveat. If the Spartans handle Bucknell and a second-round opponent to be determined (TCU, Syracuse or Arizona State), they’d get a possible Sweet 16 matchup with longtime nemesis Duke, which won the clash early this season, 88-81.
The Wolverines didn’t get a break in their sit but did fine with their seed. And how’s this for another juicy twist — possibly awaiting them in the Sweet 16 is their own daunting obstacle, North Carolina, which beat the Wolverines 86-71 in November.
The last time Michigan and Michigan State had a chance to open the Tournament at home, they played at the Palace in 2013, and both rolled to a pair of victories. But second-seeded Purdue took precedence this time, sending the Wolverines packing and the Spartans prepping for some home-state love.
“It is so cool when your fans and our state kind of embraces you,” Tom Izzo said Sunday night. “I think there’ll be a lot of happy Spartans who get to go to the game without spending a tremendous amount of money. Unfortunately, they don’t win the game for you. But I think if you’re a homecourt crowd, it helps you get a better chance to win it.”
John Beilein admitted Detroit would’ve been convenient, but the team isn’t spending much time fretting about it. Michigan (28-7) had a slightly better RPI and stronger strength-of-schedule and is riding a nine-game winning streak, but Michigan State (29-4) lost three fewer games and won the Big Ten regular season.
“They did have a better record than us,” Michigan guard Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman said. “We beat them head-to-head both times but you can’t worry about that. Just got to focus on the game that’s ahead.”
That game will be 9:50 Thursday night against Montana (26-7), which finished 16-2 in the Big Sky and is riding a six-game winning streak. Just because you don’t know a ton about these opponents, don’t mistake anything for a game, not this year (or most years). Bucknell went 16-2 in the Patriot League and brings an eight-game winning streak into its matchup against Michigan State.
This figures to be one of the more fascinating Tournaments, not just because of the balanced teams, but because of the unbalanced times. There’s an ongoing FBI probe into college basketball’s dark side, with top programs and players reportedly involved with agents and illicit payments.
There’s much to sort out there, and much more to sort out here, on the basketball floors of eight regional sites across America, where the top four seeds – Virginia, Villanova, Kansas, Xavier – appear both powerful and vulnerable. And you know who will be a popular pick to win it all? No. 4 seed Arizona, whose coach, Sean Miller, and star player, DeAndre Ayton, are embroiled in the scandal, according to an ESPN report, but are playing on.
That’s what the Spartans and Wolverines will do, with Michigan hoping to keep its run going, and Michigan State hoping to get another run started. By the time the Spartans play Friday night at 7:10, they’ll have been idling for nearly two weeks, since losing to Michigan in the Big Ten semifinals. Izzo spent a lot of that time working his players and honing his offense, and some of that time defending his team.
The Spartans set a school record for regular-season victories and just had a 13-game winning streak snapped. But because they looked shaky in two tournament games in New York, there’s been palpable angst. In a radio interview last week, Izzo said people were “crazy” if they were downgrading a 29-win team. By Sunday night, he sounded renewed, and so did his players.
“I don’t blame people,” Izzo said. “I get frustrated when they don’t think we’re ever supposed to have a down game, or don’t understand all that’s been thrown at these guys. I don’t know how they did what they did at times, if you want the truth. We’re young but talented. And most teams like that have gone up and down a little bit. Is this our time to get better? I’ve said I didn’t think we’ve reached our ceiling at all.”
Much of Michigan State’s hopes will ride again on Miles Bridges and point guard Cassius Winston, who led the nation in three-point shooting but was 1-for-11 in the Big Ten tournament.
He figures the past week of practice will turn those shooting woes.
“The more reps I get, the more comfortable I get, and I’m pretty sure I won’t struggle like that in the Tournament,” Winston said. “We feel we’re actually a real contender to win this thing. A lot of teams can say they got national championship as their goal, but it’s a huge difference when dreams actually turn into something that’s achievable. I think right now we have the players, we have the coaches, we have all the things we need to have that goal be achievable.”
The Wolverines sport a similar confidence, founded in one of the most-balanced teams Beilein ever has put together here. They’re top-10 nationally in defense, and have shown the ability to shoot and score from just about anywhere.
But Beilein’s task the past week was to look forward, not backward. He began a spirited practice the other day by telling his team to wipe away smiles of contentment, and the Wolverines proceeded to hold a spirited scrimmage that players described as exceptionally “chippy.”
It’s the type of feisty edge this Michigan team has ridden, sparked by point guard Zavier Simpson, and the type of edge that’s sometimes difficult to maintain for long stretches. So Beilein is accepting no more plaudits for winning the Big Ten tournament.
“Congratulations on the championship, but we’re not going to ever look at this thing and say we’re satisfied and we made the tournament and now it’s all good,” he said. “No, it’s not all good. It’s only good if we play at our best, and the only way we can be at our best is if we really attack practice.”
Teams push to get here, and then realize they have to push even harder. Izzo and Beilein are preaching it and pushing it, because they know the possibilities for their teams are real, as real as ever.
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.
Michigan vs. Montana
Tip-off: 9:50 p.m., Thursday, INTRUST Bank Arena, Wichita, Kan.
TV/radio: TBS/950 AM
Records: No. 3 seed Michigan is 28-7, No. 14 seed Montana is 26-7
Next up: Winner faces winner between No. 6 Houston and No. 11 San Diego State on Saturday.