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The Spartan Nation Basketball Report: Regional Finals Edition

After taking care of business in the Heathcote homeland of Spokane, the Spartans are set for Madison Square Garden and a chance to earn another Final Four berth. After dominating Thursday against Delaware, the Spartans let a hot start against Harvard fizzle away Saturday night before pulling away for good. Up next is the most exciting opportunity of the year, starting with the Virginia Cavaliers late Friday night. This week they’ve had a chance to rest, refresh, and tune up first for the bright lights of the Big Apple.

When you circle back to the highly regarded off-season, top pre-season rankings, and then the injuries that threatened to derail the season entirely, it now looks like it all may be coming together for the Spartans at the right time. Through it all, they’ve ended up with another great shot to dance onto the Final Four. “We’re not back to the team we were (before the injuries began), but we’re making progress and we’ve got four more days to practice and I’m looking forward to that,” Tom Izzo said late Saturday night after surviving the scare from Harvard.

As we discussed in the past two editions of this Report, the Spartans are still a work in progress that probably won’t peak until Final Four weekend, should earn the opportunity. UVA, on the other hand, looks like it peaked Sunday evening in a blowout win over Memphis. If not, they should literally waltz to the National Title from here. That’s how good they looked Sunday night. It’s hard to believe they can sustain that level, but MSU should expect a stingy effort from the Defense-First team coached by Tony Bennett.

If that name sounds familiar beyond the world of music it’s because Tony is Dick Bennett’s son, and was an assistant with the Badgers around the turn of the century. If you remember the purely thrilling matchups between the elder Bennett’s Badgers and the Spartans (including 4 in the 1999-2000 season), Friday night could be quite the snooze fest. The younger Bennett’s teams have scored in the 70s, however, so don’t get too worried that the first team to 43 will move on to Sunday’s Regional Finals.

After looking like they would cruise to a 20-point blowout win over Harvard, the Spartans’ 12-point Halftime lead evaporated all the way into a deficit. Tommy Amaker nearly pulled off the biggest win in his coaching career, but MSU had just enough to save the “W.” “Whenever you can learn with a win, that’s a valuable lesson,” Izzo said recapping the rollercoaster ride. “I hope it makes you smarter.”

Their busy schedule looked like it caught up to them during Halftime, even mentally. “I did think we tire a bit,” Izzo admitted after the game. MSU fortunately had enough talent and resolve to avoid the dreaded come from ahead loss, and has since been enjoying a chance to refresh. The Spartans must feel good about the career performance from Adreian Payne Thursday night, and Saturday may have gotten the best out of Branden Dawson to date too.

“He’s getting back now and he’s getting more comfortable, and he likes it,” Izzo said about the Junior who dunked explosively over the weekend. “Defensively he was good, he wasn’t great yet.” If Dawson can elevate his Defense without picking up too many fouls, the team’s Defense will tighten up another notch. Keep an eye on Dawson’s D, and of course his Rebounding, throughout the rest of the Dance. It should go hand in hand with their final results.

The Spartans will eventually need more scoring from Keith Appling at some point this weekend. He got things started, perhaps, with two clutch Free Throws late in Saturday’s win. If he can hit a handful of shots (of any kind) during each game this weekend, the Spartans options offensively should open up a little bit more. If he remains reluctant to shoot, it could become a struggle to find enough scoring options.

“We didn’t do some things that were very smart in that stretch,” Izzo said about the 16-point lead that was lost in around 10-minutes of the second half Saturday. “We need to be smarter.” As we’ve discussed in this report earlier this year, Foul Trouble could be MSU’s ultimate undoing. After being ridiculously fouled out of the Duke game in last year’s Tournament, the Spartans came dangerously close to such a result on Thursday, and even Saturday were under some threat. Spartan fans should not have forgotten the bogus Foul-Out loss to Nevada in the 2004 Tournament, or the Foul plagued Final Four loss to Butler from 2010.

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Based on the majority of Tournament games last weekend it looks like this Big Dance will be officiated with touchy white gloves until the end. Most contact, whether or not it actually impedes an opposing player’s progress, has been whistled so far. There were eye raising exceptions in the Spartans’ games over the weekend, of course. The bottom line is that officiating is becoming the lead story of this Tournament and this team must be extremely careful that it is not their ultimate undoing.

Unfortunately, it’s affected their Defensive intensity and propensity to get after loose balls. It’s asking a lot for Michigan St. basketball to play less like Michigan St. basketball, but that’s what the officiating in the game is basically doing right now. It’s a real shame, but that’s a discussion for the eventual off season.

“It’s going to get tougher every day, but I can’t tell you how proud I am of them to be in a Sweet Sixteen,” Izzo reflected Saturday night in likely the final moments he took to purely enjoy making a 12th Sweet 16 in the last 17 years. “We just played 5 games in 9 days.” After arriving home early Sunday morning and taking that much needed day off, the Spartans have since been able to take a deep breath and catch up. That left MSU Monday through Wednesday (most likely) to prepare to play their best basketball this weekend.

“We’ve still gotta practice because we’re still not in sync,” Izzo said. “Every time we play and practice, we get a few things closer.” Friday night we’ll start to find out whether they tightened up any loose ends. This program knows what it takes to get through Regional weekends and onto the Final Four. They know there aren’t many short cuts, and pay attention to the fine details like identifying where players may have lost some composure last week, and figuring out how to avoid it next time. If they continue to progress as they have in the past couple of weeks and continue to get more from the likes of Denzel Valentine, they will be too much for any opponent at the Garden this weekend and once again will cut down a set of Regional Championship nets.

Many of the Spartans must feel like they had Final Four teams that were derailed over the past two seasons. Without a doubt, this program has quietly been looking forward to this weekend for nearly a year now. The recent days of work in East Lansing should decide if they can book their tickets for Dallas next week. “When nobody else did, I still believed in this team,” Izzo reminded the masses late Saturday night. Now their difficult schedule of the past couple of weeks is actually in a position to pay off. Now their season of injuries and disruptions are firmly behind them, and they’re ready to return to the game’s biggest stage with something to prove.

In case you forgot, or like many just choose to forget a game that MSU barely showed up for outside of some ridiculous looking sneakers, the Spartans fell to Georgetown 64-60 on Super Bowl Saturday. It was one of a few aberrations of this unique season, and is best left in the “forget about it” pile. The good news is with fresh experience in the now completely renovated Garden, MSU will be more used to the lighting and sightlines in that building than others.

“We’ve got bigger fish to fry and bigger things to go after,” Izzo summed up after getting out of the Tournament’s first weekend. That proved to be less than a sure thing for many of the traditionally favored schools this year.  But Spartans survived again, and are now off to the big island of Manhattan, ready to snag College Basketball’s biggest fish on Sunday afternoon.

The Spot Up 3:Â A Set of Quick Ones to Dribble Around Your Basketball Mind

  1. The NCAA should wake up to what people call the first week of the Dance. No one buys their new terminology and no one ever will! Call the play-ins the Play in Round, and leave the rest of the weekend as the 1st and 2nd Round.
  2. Tournament expansion has two logical next steps. One is to expand the Play-in-Round to two games per Region. The other is to put some actual value into the otherwise exhibition Conference Tournaments by awarding the winner a 1st Round bye. There’s no reason to do anything else for the foreseeable future.
  3. We all love that each game is available for us to watch, at any time. But why are they spread so far apart that some are ending at 1:00 am local time? What used to make the old TV system so magical is that games would end in tight succession. I understand they are all given a separate stage now to maximize ratings and TV advertisement dollars to pay for the Big Dance, but tighten up those windows.
  4. If the Spartans somehow make it to Dallas and cut down the National Championship nets, Tom Izzo would be wise to seriously consider taking a shot at the NBA. There’s something to be said for going out on top, and how rarely does anyone get that kind of chance to do so?

Let me hear all about it inside the Phalanx Forum and @JPSpartan