Michigan State is no stranger to big stages and tough competition. That much is clear just looking at the schedule.
The problem for the No. 24 ranked Spartans is simple: they haven’t won any big games, and they might not for the rest of the non-conference season. There’s no points for playing good teams and losing. That’s why they must win the Battle 4 Atlantis.
The selection committee looks at marquee wins in non-conference play to set apart evenly matched teams come March. MSU usually delivers that marquee win. Last year, it was against No. 4 Kansas. The year before, no marquee win, and a 7-seed as a result (yes, I know, that team went to the Final Four). What will the Spartans’ big win be this year? Florida Gulf Coast?
The Big Ten is top-heavy this year, meaning MSU will only have three or four games to pad their conference resume: At No. 3 Indiana, two games vs. No. 17 Purdue and a home game against No. 16 Wisconsin. As of now, only Indiana is elite in that group, making non-conference even more important.
This is a prime opportunity to notch wins against highly-ranked teams. Everyone will be tired and everyone will be far away from home (except for Tum Tum Nairn), so the playing field is level. St. John’s will be MSU’s first opponent, but no bracketologist would consider that a good win. If State gets past the Red Storm, they will have to face the winner of No. 20 Baylor vs. VCU. For resume sake, the Spartans are hoping it will be Baylor.
The Bears come into the tournament 3-0, including a lopsided upset over then-No. 4 Oregon in Waco. Now that’s a marquee win (even though the Ducks were without their best player Dillon Brooks). This would be a phenomenal resume builder for the Spartans on their way to the championship game. But don’t assume it’ll be an easy road past Baylor.
One thing that the Spartans struggle with is experienced post players. FGCU had a 6-foot-9, 250 pound beast in the paint named Antravious Simmons, and he ate up Nick Ward and Kenny Goins. Simmons finished with 18 points and 12 rebounds on the night, and the Eagles as a team crushed the Spartans on the glass 41-29.
Coincidentally, the Eagles also played Baylor this year, losing 81-72. How did Simmons do in that game, you ask? 10 points, one rebound. The Bears out-rebounded FGCU 29-20. Not a good sign for the Spartans. They’ll have to deal with 7-footer Jo Lual-Acuil Jr., who is averaging 10.7 points, 10 rebounds and 5.3 blocks per game. All I have to say to Goins is good luck.
If the Spartans manage to get past Baylor, they’ll find themselves in the championship game, with possible opponents of LSU, Old Dominion, Wichita State and No. 10 Louisville. Let’s take a leap here and say the Cardinals will make the championship game. Again, that’s what the Spartans want for their resume.
Last year’s showdown at the Breslin Center won’t be far from the minds of the Cardinals, who lost that matchup 71-67. This year, Louisville is even better, and so is Jaylen Johnson. The 6-foot-9 forward from Ypsilanti only scored two points in last year’s game, but is on a tear to start this season, averaging 15.3 points and 11.3 boards. Oh, and he’s shooting 70 percent from the field.
Don’t forget about the Cardinals’ other tree, 6-foot-10 Mangok Mathiang, who is averaging 7.7 points and eight rebounds. If Louisville decides to go big and play both Johnson and Mathiang at the same time, it could spell trouble on the defensive end for the Spartans.
The Cardinals do have a weakness though, and that’s their outside shooting. They’re shooting a shade below 32 percent from beyond the arc so far, and that’s against the likes of Evansville, William & Mary and Long Beach State.
After all of this, Coach Izzo’s squad has to make the trek to Cameron Indoor Stadium to face off with the Duke Blue Devils, and marquee wins there are few and far between. Even more reason why the Battle 4 Atlantis is a must-win. The road to the championship won’t be a cakewalk for the Spartans, but it’s certainly doable, and it would greatly aid their lackluster resume.