Spartans will bring fight to March Madness

By Jeremy Werner

Wisconsin, Indiana and Purdue are battling down to the wire for the regular season Big Ten crown, but a troop of Spartans may be the fiercest conference team as the postseason looms.

Michigan State began the year as a top-10 team and took a 19-2 record through January. But February revealed a kink in the Spartans’ armor, as Tom Izzo’s team lost three of four in early February.

However, the team has bounced back with three victories in its last four games, including its 59-51 victory against Illinois Thursday, with the only loss coming to Big Ten leader Wisconsin.

Michigan State’s 103-74 trouncing of No. 12 Indiana last Sunday was a devastating loss to the Hoosiers’ conference title hopes and proved the Spartans are still a contender in this year’s NCAA Tournament. In fact, Michigan State has the best chance of representing the Big Ten in the Final Four this season.

All the teams competing for the Big Ten regular season title have glaring weaknesses that will show come tournament time.

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Matt Painter has restocked Purdue with one of the best recruiting classes in school history and quickly turned the Boilermaker program around. But their inexperience in the NCAA tournament and dependence on freshmen looks like too much to overcome for the Boilermakers to make a deep run in this year’s tournament.

Conference leader Wisconsin has been the hottest and most consistent team in the Big Ten because of their experienced, balanced starting lineup. With four starters scoring more than 10 points per game, the Badgers have been tough to defeat. But what the Badgers sorely lack is that legitimate player that can take over games, like Deron Williams did for the Illini during the end of the 2004-05 season, a must-have in March and April.

Indiana has been a strong team all season long. Freshman phenom Eric Gordon and senior D.J. White are both All-America candidates and form the fiercest duo in the NCAA. The Hoosiers have played well through adversity since Kelvin Sampson’s dismissal. But interim coach Dan Dakich must find ways for Indiana to overcome its lack of depth on offense and inability to play consistent defense for the Hoosiers to live up to its potential talent. The Spartans, meanwhile, have the most weapons to make a serious battle for not only the Big Ten title, but the NCAA crown.

Like Wisconsin, Michigan State has multiple threats on offense with four players averaging more than 8.8 points per game.

Center Goran Suton is a load to handle in the post and ranks fifth in the Big Ten with a 53.9 percent field goal percentage, while teams also have to keep an eye on freshman guard Kalin Lucas who averages 10.2 points.

Unlike the Badgers, however, the Spartans have two players who can take over ballgames. Sophomore forward Raymar Morgan shoots 57.4 percent from the field and can light opponents up, scoring 20-plus points in seven games this season.

The biggest strength on the floor for Michigan State, though, is veteran Drew Neitzel. The senior is the best point guard in the Big Ten.

The Spartans know the ball is safe in his hands as he leads the Big Ten with a 3.15 assist-to-turnover ratio. His career 85.7 free-throw percentage and 40 percent three-point percentage also give the Spartans the clutch player they need to ice games.

But the X-factor for Michigan State has and always will be head coach Tom Izzo. In his 12 complete seasons in East Lansing, Izzo has won a national championship and made appearances in three additional Final Fours.

Like so many past Izzo-led teams, this year’s version wins by playing fundamentally strong basketball. The Spartans lead the Big Ten with 18.3 assists per game, a 48.7 field goal percentage and a 7.7 rebounding margin over opponents.

Izzo played off his team’s recent success following their victory at the Assembly Hall Thursday, saying they are too inconsistent to be mentioned with the country’s elite. But the Spartans are on their way to their 11th straight NCAA Tournament appearance under Izzo and look as strong as ever.

Jeremy Werner is a Junior in Communications. He can be reached at [email protected].