The Spartans edged Ohio State 68-64 on Sunday in the Big Ten tournament championship game to secure the fourth and final No. 1 seed. The Spartans had not won their conference tournament since 2000, a year in which they went on to win the NCAA tournament. So, Sunday's victory could be a good omen.
The most important takeaway from the victory over Ohio State was the play of Valparaiso transfer Brandon Wood, who scored a season-high 21 points. When Michigan State lost athletic freshman guard Branden Dawson to a torn knee ligament in the regular-season finale, it looked like a potentially devastating blow. But if the Spartans can get anything close to that kind of production from Wood, coach Tom Izzo's motion offense will remain potent.
In forward Draymond Green, the Big Ten Player of the Year, Michigan State has a versatile frontcourt star who averages a double-double. Point guard Keith Appling is equally adept at distributing (3.8 apg) as he is scoring (11.5 ppg). The Spartans' defense, however, is what makes them elite. They are 12th nationally in points allowed, permitting only 59 per game contest.
Since Izzo took over as Michigan State coach in 1995, the Spartans have reached the tournament 14 times, and in nine of those years they advanced to at least the Sweet 16. In most of those seasons, he had a team less talented than what he has now, so anything short of the Final Four would be a disappointment.
The 49ers have a true star in point guard Casper Ware (see below) and three other seniors (and a junior) make up the starting five. Long Beach State has also been tested on the road against major conference schools (defeating Pitt and Auburn and narrowly losing at Kansas and North Carolina). Dan Monson, who guided Gonzaga to the Elite 8 in 1999 and created the model for every hopeful bracketbuster to follow, has built the "The Beach" into a potential Sweet 16 participant.
The Tigers are a marquee name and they won 11 of 12 to end the season. They also captured the Conference USA tournament title. But they defeated only one tournament team (Xavier) during that stretch and aren't as good as their 26 victories might suggest. Memphis is young and prone to mistakes and is led by a coach (Josh Pastner) who isn't a proven operator in the tournament. The Tigers can run but aren't a great half-court team and they don't rebound well. If they face a team that can match their athleticism, it is anyone's guess if they will rise to the occasion or wilt, with wilt being the safe bet.
Talk about a contrast in styles. The Cavaliers slow the game to a crawl and try to win by getting just enough offense -- most coming from senior forward Mike Scott, who averages nearly 18 points per game -- while frustrating teams with their "Pack Line" defense, which was best in the ACC, allowing less than 54 points per contest.
Florida, meanwhile, likes to play up-tempo and shoot a lot of three-pointers, and the Gators have five players who average at least 10 points a game. On defense, Florida is merely adequate, and that may be too generous a description. It is the turtle vs. the hare, great defense vs. great offense, and like most No. 7 vs. No. 10 games you could make a good case that either team will be victorious.
Mid-majors rarely have a player like Gordon, the UCLA transfer who averaged a double-double (13.4 ppg and 11 rpg) for the Lobos. New Mexico is most comfortable in a half-court offense, with Gordon on the block, and he is an excellent rim protector on defense, allowing the New Mexico guards to apply high pressure. Gordon is also an elite rebounder, helping New Mexico outrebound its opponent in 27 of 30 regular season games.
The two-time Big West Conference Player of the Year is one of the top point guards in the country. If you doubt that, consider what two NBA players tweeted after Ware scored 28 points in Long Beach State's upset of then-No. 8 Pittsburgh in November. LeBron James: "Casper Ware a problem out there!!" Milwaukee Bucks point guard Brandon Jennings, who played against Ware in the Drew League last summer: "Casper Ware is the Best College PG from Los Angeles.... I'm a Believer!!!."
No, Pitino's job is not in jeopardy. He will likely be allowed to coach the Cardinals as long as he wants. But he has failed to get his team past the opening game the last two seasons. In 2010, the ninth-seeded Cardinals lost to No. 8 Cal. Last year, 13th-seeded Morehead State upset Pitino's fourth-seeded group. Given the success John Calipari has had at that other school in the Bluegrass state, Pitino would be wise to at least get his team to a second game, if not the Sweet 16.
That is the number of turnovers Missouri commits per game, seventh best in the nation. Given how fast the Tigers play, that is no small accomplishment. Most of the teams ranked above them (such as Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Purdue, Northwestern) play significantly slower. It is an indicator of how the Tigers maximize their possessions, a key to their success.
It is a boring choice, but there isn't a team in the region with the same combination of talent, experience and coaching acumen. When in doubt, pick the team coached by Tom Izzo.