Last season, the Michigan State Spartans made the Elite Eight as a No. 4 seed on the backs of guard Gary Harris and forward/center Adreian Payne, both of whom were drafted into the NBA in June. This time around, though no such talent exists on the team’s roster, the Spartans could still make a lot of noise in the Sweet Sixteen and beyond.
Granted, losing a great scoring guard in Harris and phenomenal big man in Payne did result in a minor step back for the team this year, and even I’ll admit that term is being used loosely. Michigan State had an overall regular season record of 23-8 last year, going 12-6 in Big Ten play. In the 2014-2015 campaign, the team went 21-10 while going 12-6 in conference once again.
As can be seen, that isn’t a HUGE step back for a team that lost two key starters from last year’s squad. More importantly, Michigan State plays in the incredibly deep Big Ten, where wins are hard to come by, no matter how much talent a team may have on its roster.
Now, the Spartans are a No. 7 seed in this year’s tourney, and have a date with the No. 3 Oklahoma Sooners of the Big 12 in Friday night’s Sweet Sixteen matchup. Though the Sooners have a higher seeding, they actually finished with a similar regular season record than their opponents, going 21-9 in the regular season and 12-6 in conference play.
But questions still remain for the Spartans. Instead of Harris and Payne, their scoring attack this season is in the hands of leading scorers Travis Trice (14.8 PPG) and Denzel Valentine (14.5 PPG) and rebounder Branden Dawson (9.5 RPG).
As talented as these three are, however, they have their flaws. Trice is an incredibly streaky shooter who only made 39 percent of his shots this year, and half of his field goal attempts are three-pointers. Valentine is a more accurate shot, making 44 percent of his shots, but he too takes way too many three pointers. Dawson, despite his strong rebounding ability, is vastly undersized at 6’6″, 225 pounds. Considering how Oklahoma’s leading rebounder, Ryan Spangler, is 6’8″, 231 pounds, he’s bound to have some struggles in the paint.
But, Michigan State still should not be counted out. This is a team that plays for future Hall of Famer Tom Izzo, a born and bred Michigan man who has been at the school for over 30 years; 12 as an assistant and currently in his 20th as the head coach. Despite appearing to be on the bubble at one point, he rallied this team together for the home stretch and they gelled together as a unit accordingly.
On top of that, this is the program’s fourth consecutive trip to the Sweet Sixteen, and a second consecutive trip to the Elite Eight would be fantastic considering how this year’s roster is nowhere near as deep as last season’s.
But, that all starts with the guards. Valentine and Trice need to rely less on shooting the lights out and more on driving the lane and absorbing contact. Michigan State finished fourth in the nation in assists per game this year, so we know that this squad knows how to communicate on the court.
Most important of all, they have a great head coach in Izzo. He knows how to rally the troops when it matters, and beating Oklahoma is an important test to see how good this year’s Michigan State team actually is. Despite being a lower seed, they’re actually two-and-a-half point favorites heading into Friday’s matchup.
But Oklahoma has already beaten two incredibly feisty teams in the Albany Great Danes and Dayton Flyers, and now they’re set to face a Spartan team that has a great deal of deeper tournament experience.
Thus, don’t let the Spartans and their roller coaster season make you write them off against a higher-seeded team. This is a squad that can go far, and they’ll be out to prove it come Friday.
*Section Photo credit to Leon Halip, Getty Images; Featured Photo (above) credit to USA Today Sports