Conference: Big Ten (At-Large)
Record: 19-14 (9-8)
NCAA Tournament Seed: 9 (Midwest)
How they got to the Big Dance
Following two wins in exhibition games, Michigan State lost its first two regular season games, one in the Armed Forces Classic to then No. 10 Arizona, 65-63, and one to then No. 2 Kentucky 69-48. After being ranked No. 12 in the AP’s preseason poll, the Spartans tumbled all the way to No. 24.
A home matchup against Florida Gulf Coast came down to the wire as the Spartans escaped with a one-point win at home, 78-77. Following a convincing 11-point win over St. John’s in the Battle 4 Atlantis, then No. 20 Baylor spoiled the Spartans bid to make up for their early-season struggles, defeating them 73-58. Michigan State finished its trip to the Bahamas with a 77-72 win over Wichita State.
A loss to Duke in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge dropped the Spartans to 4-4 at the end of November. Michigan State finished its out of conference slate by winning four of its next five, losing only to Northeastern at home.
Conference play wasn’t much kinder to the Spartans, as they barely finished above .500, going 10-8. After starting 2-1, Michigan State lost three of its next five. Head coach Tom Izzo and his Spartans responded by winning four of their next five, including a 10-point home win over then-No. 16 Wisconsin. Michigan State couldn’t carry that momentum its final games of the season as it dropped games to Illinois and Maryland, both on the road. After a sound win over Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament, Minnesota ended the Spartans conference championship bid in the quarterfinals, winning 63-58.
Why they’re a legitimate contender
Izzo’s record in March is nothing short of incredible.
— Doug Gottlieb (@GottliebShow) July 1, 2016
This year is the 20th consecutive year Izzo has led Michigan State to the NCAA Tournament. He’s won five Big Ten Conference Championships, reached seven Final Fours and won a national championship. Freshmen Miles Bridges and Nick Ward lead the team with 16.7 and 13.7 points per game, respectively. While they may be inexperienced, this is also their first experience with Izzo in March, and they don’t know any better than to just go out and play to the best of their ability.
Why they’re not a legitimate contender
A postseason run is unlikely for Michigan State for the flip side of the reason that they could make a postseason run—they’re inexperienced. Two freshmen lead the team in scoring. Their third-leading scorer, Eron Harris is out for the season. No other player averages more than seven points per game.
Their inexperience could be a reason for their -3.2 turnover margin, but it is not an excuse. Teams can’t turn the ball over to their opponents in March and still expect to win games. Michigan State has struggled mightily away from home this season, going 5-12 at away and neutral courts compared to 14-2 at the Breslin Center. Unfortunately for the Spartans, the NCAA Tournament is played at neutral sites.
Player to watch: G Miles Bridges
Bridges is the Big Ten Freshman of the Year as voted on by both the coaches and the media. He was also the only unanimous selection to the Big Ten All-Freshman team. As a freshman, he led the team in points, rebounds and minutes per game, was second on the team in blocks and was third on the team in steals and 3-point percentage. If Bridges can get enough help from Ward and the rest of the team, he could have a breakout tournament and carry the Spartans into the late rounds. He is the type of all-around superstar that is capable of putting the team on his back and carrying it further than anybody expects.