Bubble Watch 2015: Michigan State Spartans

It’s been a rough season for the Michigan State Spartans, and a roller coaster year has head coach Tom Izzo’s squad and their tournament status in limbo.

Let’s look at the most basic numbers. MSU finished with an overall record of 21-10, with a 12-6 record in the Big Ten. Compared to some other bubble teams like Providence and conference rival Ohio State, that isn’t at all bad. Especially considering how this is a team that finished with an identical record in conference last season, and they went on to the Elite Eight.

Michigan State is also just five years removed from a Final Four appearance in 2010, and six from being runner-up to the North Carolina Tar Heels in 2009. On the whole, this season wasn’t a step back for them as much as it was a minor stumble.

If you think about it, two words can describe Michigan State’s season: bad luck. Looking at their schedule, al but one of their in-conference losses came by a margin of less than 10 points. There was a rough double-overtime loss to Maryland on December 30; another overtime shocker to Minnesota in February; an absolutely stunning heartbreaker against Nebraska on January 24.

And yet, even with so many bad losses and only one signature win, against Ohio State on February 14, the Spartans still managed to finish in a three-way tie for third place in the ultra-competitive Big Ten and a No. 3 seed draw in the conference tournament, with their first game to be played on Friday.

Moreover, despite this adversity, Michigan State has managed to finish in the top 100 nationally in most major categories and even rank fourth in the nation in assists per game and 16th in rebounding.

But it’s still going to be an uphill battle for the Spartans. Last year’s squad had two prime talents in forward/center Adreian Payne and guard Gary Harris, but both have since been drafted into the NBA.

This year’s offensive attack rests on the shoulders of guards Denzel Valentine (14.5 PPG) and Travis Trice (14.8 PPG, 5.4 APG), neither of whom carries the same consistency that Harris provided last year. Trice is an incredibly streaky shooter with a field goal percentage of only 39, which can be attributed to his tendency to rely more on his three-point shot than driving the lane, and he is generally undersized at 6’0″, 170 pounds. Valentine is bigger at 6’5″, 220 pounds and also has a stronger shooting percentage of 44, but like Trice is very reliant on his long-range shooting.

Senior Branden Dawson does well at bringing in 9.3 rebounds a game to the table, but is only 6’6″ and lacks the physical presence that the 6’10” Payne provided in the paint.

That all being said, even though Michigan State did draw a high seed in the Big Ten Tournament and does appear to have a bright tournament future, its up-and-down regular season leaves any and all tournament hopes dependent on a successful conference champion defense, or a trip to at least the semifinals in this particular case.

Considering how two regular season losses came against teams that finished well out of the tournament picture, there is no better time than now for the Spartans to rally and show the fans just how great a team they can be and that this season was a fluke, record-wise. This means taking smart shots and locking down on defense, not letting faster teams light up the scoreboard under any circumstances.

Otherwise, they’ll be staring at an early exit in the Big Ten Tournament, and just barely likely being left out of the Big Dance depending on what happens on Selection Sunday.

*Section Photo credit to Gregory Shamus, Getty Images; Featured Photo (above) credit to David Banks, USA Today Sports

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