Michigan State faces Georgia with edge in NCAA experience
CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has the Spartans set to make another run in the NCAA Tournament after a bumpy stretch in January.
Heading into Friday's NCAA Tournament opener against Georgia, the Spartans are right back where they are every year - in the field and aiming to stick around awhile. It's one of the staples of Izzo's long and successful run with Michigan State, even if he says there is no trick to seemingly always having his team playing its best as the bids go out.
''I don't want to be thought of as a March coach,'' he said Thursday. ''I get paid for all 12 months.''
The No. 7 seed in the East Region, Michigan State (23-11) was 13-7 after a January loss at Nebraska and flirting with missing the NCAAs for the first time since 1997. But they're here for the 18th straight year after a late-season push that included reaching the Big Ten Tournament final.
''It's not just about March to me, it's about the process to get to March,'' Izzo said. ''But when we get close to March, I think every living alum thinks March is the time when we excel, and I think in a way it presents a little pressure. But I think it's one of the rare times it's really, really good pressure.''
His teams have responded by winning at least one NCAA game for eight straight seasons, including last year's trip to the Elite Eight.
''We feel a sense of pride that we've got to carry that on,'' senior guard Travis Trice said, ''especially for the past players that have really made a name for Michigan State.''
Compare that long history of tournament success to the 10th-seeded Bulldogs (21-11). Georgia is in the tournament for the first time since 2011 - only fifth-year senior and leading scorer Marcus Thornton was on that team - and the third time since its last NCAA Tournament victory in 2002.
''I think tournament experience is important, but our goal wasn't just to get here,'' Bulldogs coach Mark Fox said. ''Hopefully our team will have the poise to deal with the emotions of the event. It's a bigger event than they're used to, and our poise and ability to deal with that's going to be important. And those teams that have experience, that's probably a slight advantage.''
Some things to watch in Friday's Georgia-Michigan State game:
TRICE'S ROLL: Trice, the Spartans' top scorer at 14.8 points per game, would like to pick up where he left off in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals. The senior was averaging 20.4 points over a run of eight games before finishing with six on 2-for-8 shooting in the title-game overtime loss to Wisconsin.
GAINES' HEALTH: The health of Georgia second-leading scorer Kenny Gaines (11.6 points) remains in question. He sprained his left foot in practice and missed the regular-season finale, then re-aggravated the injury when he returned in the Southeastern Conference Tournament and missed another game. He had the foot bundled up in a heating pad and warm towels in the locker room before Thursday's practice. Fox said he expects Gaines will play. ''If the foot feels up to it,'' Gaines said, ''then me and the foot will be out there playing hard.''
GEORGIA'S DEFENSE: Gaines' status doesn't just affect the Bulldogs' offense. He's the top perimeter defender alongside on a team that ranks 17th nationally by holding opponents to 38.7 percent on the year. If he's not full speed, how will that affect Georgia on the perimeter?
HIT THE BOARDS: Michigan State ranks 17th nationally in rebounding margin (6.8) and has been outrebounded only five times all year. Branden Dawson, the Big Ten's best rebounder, twice pulled down 18 rebounds this season. Georgia must keep the Spartans off the glass.
FULLY PREPPED: While tournament experience favors the Spartans, both teams have reasons to feel tournament ready. The Spartans faced 10 teams in the NCAA field and played high seeds like Duke, Kansas, Notre Dame and Wisconsin while setting a program record with seven overtime games. Georgia, meanwhile, set a program record with six SEC road wins - a sign of what Thornton called ''a very resilient bunch.''
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