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We'll be previewing the entire Final Four field in Morning Madness this week. Michigan State, which is back in the Final Four after last making an appearance in 2015, is fresh off an inspiring Elite Eight victory over Duke. Here's everything you need to know about Tom Izzo and the Spartans as they prepare to face Texas Tech and its stifling defense.
How They Got Here
After an inauspicious start to its tournament in the form of an unexpectedly close battle with Bradley that included spurring a Tom Izzo social media debate about coaching methods, Michigan State rolled through its next two opponents (No. 10 seed Minnesota and No. 3 seed LSU) before a showdown with Duke. In edging the Blue Devils by one, Izzo beat Mike Krzyzewski for only the second time in 13 tries and knocked out the overall No. 1 seed in the process. Junior Cassius Winston (more on him below) has led the charge for MSU, while timely contributions from the likes of seniors Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins, sophomore Xavier Tillman and freshmen Aaron Henry and Gabe Brown have all been key.
One big thing we’ve learned
Outside of Winston, you never quite know where Michigan State’s production will come from on a given night, and it’s used that as a strength. Winston is the clear go-to guy, but consider this: against Duke, the other high-scorer was Tillman with 19; against LSU, it was Henry (20 points) and Brown (15); against Minnesota, five other players besides Winston scored at least nine points; and against Bradley, Tillman and McQuaid combined for 26, matching Winston’s output. The Spartans can beat you in a number of ways, and have a point guard who can take over a game. That’s why they’re so dangerous.
Michigan State exploits Texas Tech’s tendency to be aggressive on defense, forcing foul trouble down low to the likes of Tariq Owens and Norense Odiase to open up the floor and get the Red Raiders out of rhythm. After getting past Texas Tech, the Spartans crack Virginia’s Pack Line by heating up from deep (a formula that nearly worked for Purdue) and forcing the Cavaliers into more cold outside shooting by locking down the paint, or use their size advantage to win the battle inside against Auburn while also making enough threes to combat any potential Tigers barrage from deep.
Michigan State’s on-again, off-again turnover problem rears its ugly head against Texas Tech’s swarming D, which ranks 11th nationally in defensive turnover rate. It’s enough to neutralize the Spartans’ advantage on the boards, and the Red Raiders win the three-point battle to book a spot in Monday’s national championship game and send MSU packing.
X-factor: Nick Ward
Ever since suffering a hairline fracture in his hand on Feb. 17 and returning from a five-game absence, Ward hasn’t had the same role for the Spartans. He went from starting to coming off the bench with a reduction in minutes, averaging only 14.8 in the NCAA tournament. His offensive production has likewise dropped off; his last game with 10 or more points came back on Feb. 12. But Ward, who was averaging 15.4 points and 6.7 rebounds at the time of his injury, remains a dangerous weapon down low for Tom Izzo. He led Big Ten play in fouls drawn per 40 minutes, according to kenpom.com, and was top 10 in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate. It wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see Ward break out against Texas Tech or in a potential national title game, even if it’s just in the form of a dominant stretch or a game-changing presence off the bench.
One Shining Moment Candidate: Cassius Winston
The engine that makes the Spartans go, it’s impossible to picture Michigan State winning the title without its junior point guard having a major hand in it. Winston has kept the ship running all season throughout all sorts of injuries, and has played 150 of 160 possible minutes in the NCAA tournament (including all 40 against Duke). The Spartans are hoping the image of him dribbling away from Zion Williamson as the seconds ticked away to clinch the Final Four berth wasn’t his last seminal moment of the postseason.
• Texas Tech's first Final Four puts it on a select list in Big 12 history. (By Michael Shapiro)
• UCLA is reportedly finalizing a deal to hire Jamie Dixon as its next head coach.
• After one season at UNC, Coby White is headed for the NBA.
• Ranking every seed upset of the 2019 NCAA tournament. (By Joe Wilkinson)
• Wednesday's newsletter: Can red-hot Auburn continue its historic run? (By Dan Greene)
After snapping its streak of eight straight games with at least 12 made three-pointers in its Elite Eight win over Kentucky, Auburn gets on track with at least a dozen treys against Virginia and the Pack-Line defense.