Bracket Lames: Don't expect Sparty to throw usual March party
Five months ago a wide-eyed group of Spartans stormed center court at the Breslin Center for Midnight Madness ceremonies. Energetic, anxious and brimming with optimism, the team, exuberant for the season anew, soaked up the spotlight.
As they embraced the cheers catchy disco-funk chords, six-piece horns and vintage vocal inflections from a timeless late-70s hit blared in the background.
It was an appropriate and calculated musical selection: 1) Tom Izzo, who once dressed a lost member from KISS, is a 70s music enthusiast. 2) The song paid tribute to the 40th anniversary of Magic Johnson’s legendary National Championship team, which also topped the charts in 1979.
Cassius Winston and cohorts ripped off an exterior layer to reveal script State throwbacks.
Excitement was high that night in East Lansing, understandably so. With key contributors Winston, Nick Ward, Matt McQuaid and Joshua Langford returning from a squad which claimed victory 30 times the previous season, trophy aspirations were certainly not limited to the Big Ten.
For a decorated program with nine conference titles, seven Final Fours and a national championship to its name in the Izzo era adding another shiny object to the case seemed like a foregone conclusion.
However, its path has been filled with its fair share of potholes.
Clanked shots. Stockpiled turnovers. Critical injuries (Langford’s season-ending foot setback the most damning). Bitter losses. It hasn’t been the Sparty Party most anticipated back in October.
Yes, Michigan State recovered from an inexplicable mid-February slump in which it dropped three-straight games to capture a piece of the Big Ten regular season title. And, yes, it enters into the opening round of the NCAA Tournament as a high single-digit seed, but, there are causes for concern.
Will this be the fourth-consecutive March the Spartans fail to reach the second weekend?
Here are three reasons why avoiding Michigan St. in your bracket is smart money:
1 - Sloppy handles. Though Cassius Winston is one of the toughest and most numerically impactful point guards in the country — he ranks No. 2 nationally in assist rate and converts 40.4 percent beyond the arc — occasional turnover problems have surfaced. As a team, Sparty turned it over at an uncomfortable 18.8 percent clip in conference play. Since it forces only sporadic opponent mistakes, it’s imperative to minimize self-inflicted wounds. Under intense duress, the Spartans could crumble.
2 - Limited depth. Michigan St. appeared to have staved off the unforgiving injury imp once and for all after Ward returned to the lineup during the Big Ten Tournament. However, exemplary of its bad luck throughout the season, key sixth-man Kyle Ahrens succumbed to a nasty ankle injury versus Michigan. His teammates rallied around the adversity, but the junior’s absence places added responsibility on freshman Aaron Henry’s plate. Depth is critical this time of year and, sadly, the Spartans are rather emaciated.
3 - Second-chance vulnerability. Even with big bodies Ward, Xavier Tillman and Kenny Goins roaming the paint, Michigan St., uncharacteristically when compared to past Izzo coached teams, is rather susceptible to surrendering second chance opportunities. In Big Ten play, it ranked No. 10 in defensive rebounding percentage. To fend off another early elimination, it will need to command the glass on both ends.
To be fair, the Spartans have many redeeming qualities. Their blue-collar mentality, a common instilled Izzo thread, is visible. Evidenced by their top-10 national ranking in offensive and defensive efficiency and No. 1 slot in assists to field-goals made, they’re a strikingly balanced and well-drilled squad on paper.
Popular sentiment among casual and ardent college basketball fans is Michigan St. is due for a deep run. Tourney Pick ‘Em players are no exception. The Spartans are picked to reach the Elite Eight in 67 percent of total entries, the fifth-highest frequency of any team. However, possible encounters with Louisville and LSU, clubs that match up well with Sparty, could loom in the No. 2 seed’s half of the East region.
As Izzo can attest, guarantees don’t exist in March. And Michigan St. is far from even a second weekend lock.
Ignoring the obvious chalk on the top two lines, here are four additional flops (No. 5 seeds or higher) from each region that could ruin your bracket:
Duke Blue Devils (29-5, No. 1 seed, East region)
If you partook in a drinking game that involved any utterance of “Zion Williamson” during a broadcast, you would be curled up in the fetal position midway through the first half. The future NBA megastar is the Polaris of college basketball. His linebacker frame, high motor, infectious attitude, spectacular dunks and stellar defense shine brightly. His mesmerizing abilities has all of us intoxicated. However, Zion’s headline command shields concerning issues for Duke. Though one of four teams inside the top-10 in offensive and defensive efficiency nationally, it possesses visible warts. If the Devils danced their way to a national title, they would be the worst three-point shooting champ quite possibly in the history of the NCAA Tournament. As a collective, they net an appalling 30.2 percent (No. 338 in the country) beyond the arc. Cam Reddish, in particular, needs to find his shot. Below average at the free throw line and depth challenged, they’re flawed. If Williamson has an off night or experiences foul trouble, Duke, the chalk pick to take the tourney at +200, could fall well short of fans’ stratospheric expectations.
Purdue Boilermakers (23-9, No. 3 seed, South region)
Co-Big Ten champs with aforementioned Michigan St., the Boilers enter the Big Dance full steam ahead. At least, that’s what it seems. Under the surface, Purdue, which hasn’t reached the Elite Eight since 2000, has glaring issues. Most astonishingly, its premier scorer, Carsen Edwards, appears locked in a cryogenic chamber. Frigid over the past few games, he’s 14-for-his-last-66 from three. That computes to a wretched 21.2 percent. Yikes. There are positives for Purdue. Ryan Cline and Grady Eifert are efficient scorers. Demonstrative Dutchman Matt Haarms is disruptive around the basket on both ends. And Nojel Eastern is a ball-hawk defender. Aggressive on the offensive glass and No. 26 nationally in defensive efficiency, the Boilers exhibit few weaknesses. However, plus-sized teams who stand tall in the post can cause them problems. See the last two games versus Minnesota. Purdue’s draw isn’t an intimidating one, but a potential Round of 32 matchup against Villanova or St. Mary’s could open wounds. The Gaels’ size, baseline-to-baseline effectiveness and unyielding perimeter D pose the biggest threat. Its opening round opponent, Old Dominion, with its superb rebounding and suffocating defense is equally foreboding. Unless Edwards rediscovers his stroke, it’s easy to see the Boilers quickly derailing.
Kansas Jayhawks (25-9, No. 4 seed, Midwest region)
At first glance, the blue blood’s lopsided overall record, fairly high seed and NBA-level talent in Dedric Lawson are attractive qualities. However, having KU advance anywhere beyond the second round is a sucker bet. Name recognition offers zero value. This current version of Kansas is a shell of what it once was. A season-ending injury to Udoka Azubuike combined with LeGerald Vick’s departure painted Bill Self into a corner. Candidly, this might be Self’s best coaching execution of his career. He’s adjusted to curveballs, bounced back from humiliating losses and still managed to secure a No. 4 seed. Yes, Kansas’ 14-year domination as Big 12 regular season champs ended, but this team is at least competitive, despite all of its ills. It scored the ball well inside during conference play, but inconsistent outside shooting and persistent turnovers (20.1 TO%) greatly hindered KU. For it to survive the first weekend, x-factors Ochai Agbaji, Quentin Grimes and David McCormack must rise to the occasion. That doesn’t happen and it’s possible Northeastern, which peppers the opposition with threes (38.8 3PT%), bounces the Jayhawks.
Auburn Tigers (25-9, No. 5 seed, Midwest region)
The Auburn bandwagon is bound to swell. After Bruce Pearl’s club roared through the SEC Tournament, impressively humbling a loaded Tennessee team with a three-pointer barrage, casual fans will have notions its sizzling play will continue. Don’t be fooled. Yes the Tigers scored at least 1.15 points per possession in their last five games, but they’re the quintessential “live by the three; die by the three” team. Just under 50 percent of their shots come from distance. Among tournament teams only Villanova jacks more treys. They do force the most turnovers in the country (25.4 TO%), fly in transition and manufacture plentiful second chances, but No. 220 in effective field-goal percentage D and No. 242 in three-point percentage D, scoring outbursts have applied a mask. Its opening round matchup, against No. 12 seed New Mexico St., is a daunting one. The Aggies, the deepest team in the country, clamp down along the perimeter defensively allowing 33.1 percent. Their 12-man rotation and strong interior muscle could wear the Tigers down and neutralize them on the offensive glass. Buyer beware.
Fun facts/trends about the Big Dance:
• Since 2006, roughly 60 percent of teams seeded No. 11-15 that advanced beyond Round 1 ranked inside the top-75 in offensive efficiency. Defense may win championships, but offense springs Cinderella.
• Excluding 2009, at least one No. 2 seed has been eliminated by Round 2 every year since 1997. Last year, Cincinnati and North Carolina fell victim.
• Seventeen 8/9 seeds have upended a No. 1 since 1985. Florida St. accomplished the feat last year knocking off Xavier.
• No. 5 seeds have lost 34.5 percent of their first-round matchups since ’85, though they were a perfect 4-0 in 2018.
• No. 3 and No. 6 seeds beware. Eleven No. 11 seeds have reached the Sweet 16 since 2010. Syracuse and Loyola-Chicago reached the regional semifinals last year.
Bug “Bracket Brad” on Twitter. Follow him @YahooNoise.