March Madness is upon us. Bracket “experts” will emerge from the woodwork, fresh off watching their first college basketball game of the year, to tell you with absolute certainty who will win the National Championship. I don’t claim to be an expert, but I watch a ton of Michigan and Michigan State hoops, and I can say with a pretty good deal of confidence that Michigan will move on and Michigan State will be sent packing.
Michigan survived a harrowing plane incident to become the lowest-seeded team to ever win the Big Ten Tournament. After losing to Northwestern on “The Pass,” the Wolverines are 5-0. They have five wins over tournament teams in their last 10 games. Derrick Walton Jr. is proving to the Big Ten voters why he deserved to be on the all-conference first team. Zak Irvin is finally coming into his own after being an enigma for most of the season. Moe Wagner’s offense is blossoming before our eyes, even if his defense leaves something to be desired.
It might be surprising that a Michigan State grad is showering praise on the hated Wolverines. But hey, I’m a journalist now, I have to be objective (most of the time). Their first round opponent, Oklahoma State, is trending in the opposite direction of the Wolverines. They’ve lost three games in a row, albeit to Iowa State twice and Kansas, two of the top teams in the Big 12. Their last impressive win came all the way back in the beginning of February against West Virginia.
The guard play will be a key deciding factor in the matchup. Jawun Evans is one of the top guards in the nation and is a finalist for the Bob Cousy award for the nation’s best point guard. Evans averages 19 points and six assists per game and will give fits to whoever draws the undesirable task of guarding him. The Cowboys also boast one of the top offenses in the nation, scoring about 85 points per game, but they leave much to be desired on the defensive end. That’s why Michigan will win this game.
Michigan’s offense is already steamrolling teams. Wagner is an absolute matchup nightmare (just ask Purdue) and the Cowboys won’t be able to slow him down enough. With Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman emerging as a secondary scorer and DJ Wilson providing some explosiveness, the porous OSU defense will be left in the dust. But that strong offense will keep the Cowboys in the game.
Michigan 82, Oklahoma State 70
I’ve watched just about every game Michigan State has played this season, I’ve been to games in person, I’ve been to practices, I’ve talked to the players and I still have no idea what to make of the Spartans. Their youth makes them inconsistent, but also dangerous in the postseason. They will face a Miami Hurricanes team that is led by senior Davon Reid and junior Ja’Quan Newton. When scouting a Michigan State opponent, the first thing to look for is height. MSU simply can’t beat good teams that outsize them (see Purdue).
In terms of size, Miami has a slight advantage. Their leading rebounder, Kamari Murphy, is 6-foot-8, but weighs 30 pounds less than MSU freshman Nick Ward. Miami has three more players 6-foot-10 or taller, but none of them start. What tips the scales in my mind is the lack of experience for the Spartans. They’re anchored by four freshmen playing in their first NCAA tournament, two sophomores that played injured last season against Middle Tennessee, one junior who has no offense to speak of in Tum Tum Nairn and one senior who has never played major minutes for Michigan State until now in Alvin Ellis III.
Every Michigan State team in recent memory has had an elder leader on the floor that brought everyone together and became a coach on the floor, while simultaneously being a playmaking threat. Last season it was Denzel Valentine, the year before was Travis Trice and the year before that was Adreian Payne and Keith Appling. No one jumps out to me this year as a guy who can not only be the emotional leader, but also be the playmaking leader like all of those previous names could. Nairn is the emotional leader, but he’s not even the best point guard on the roster. Miles Bridges is by far the best player, but as a freshman he simply doesn’t have the experience to be the leader during the NCAA tournament.
Lack of size, lack of experience and lack of depth are what will doom the Spartans in the first round against Miami, but don’t expect Tom Izzo’s squad to go down without a fight.
Miami 65, Michigan State 60