YOSHONIS: MSU hard to predict in NCAA tournament

Michigan State forward Jaren Jackson Jr. (2) dunks the ball against Michigan during the first half of an NCAA Big Ten Conference tournament semifinal college basketball game, Saturday, March 3, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

Michigan State forward Jaren Jackson Jr. (2) dunks the ball against Michigan during the first half of an NCAA Big Ten Conference tournament semifinal college basketball game, Saturday, March 3, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Julie Jacobson)

I have lost count of the number of times people have asked me, “How do you think Michigan State will do in the tournament?”

My answers have been much easier to count. I have one:

Who the heck knows?

This has been an odd year for Spartan fans. The team set a school record for wins in a season, won the Big Ten championship and go into the Big Dance with just four losses.

Everyone from ESPN pundits to the last legitimately elected President of the United States have picked MSU to win the national championship.

 According to ESPN numbers guru Seth Walder, MSU finished fourth in Strength of Record, meaning they are the most accomplished team in the last 10 years to not receive a No. 1 or No. 2 seed.

But just about anybody who has followed them throughout the year thinks of this team as having underachieved. And not many fans felt all that slighted that the Spartans were slotted as a No. 3 seed. I know I didn’t.

The problem is, the team has been maddeningly inconsistent, despite winning 29 games so far and having the talent that everyone who picks them to win see on paper.

But, to quote ESPN’s Kenny Mayne, games aren’t played on paper, they’re played in television sets.

That’s not to say that the talent isn’t there. If everyone on the team shows up, they can beat anybody in the country. 

That hasn’t happened a lot this year.

If Tom Izzo gets back to his old form of taking teams further than their seed would suggest, as he used to do every year, they can absolutely win the whole thing. But that formerly reliable Izzo March Magic has eluded the program recently.

The two bad losses this team has endured, two double-digit losses to Michigan, have created legitimate doubt about its motivation and ability to win big games. 

I mean, if you can’t get up for Michigan, either at home or in a Big Ten tournament semifinal, when will you get up?

Now, before you U-M fans get all riled up, I don’t mean to say that Michigan is a bad team. They clearly are not. I can’t even hate them, since John Beilein is such a good coach and good guy that you can’t help….well, rooting for him is not quite right, but at least not root against him (most of the time).

They have climbed the polls dramatically late in the season, largely on the back of those two wins over MSU, but the Spartans didn’t just lose those games, they were solidly beaten both times, for the very reasons why MSU fans are nervous going into an NCAA tournament for the first time in recent memory.

In both games Michigan got a lot of their scoring from beyond the arc, and MSU’s perimeter defense was exposed. It doesn’t take a college powerhouse to duplicate that feat in the tournament, just one or two 3-point shooters getting hot at the right time.

And in both games, MSU’s own outside shooting largely deserted them. Missing long shots means giving up long rebounds, which serves to negate the Spartans’ inside presence, one of the strengths of this team.

Neither Miles Bridges nor Jaren Jackson Jr. has taken over games consistently they way they have shown they can in flashes, but as satisfying as that would be to see in a tournament setting, it may not even be necessary. I’m convinced that, if every player contributes his average game, MSU will win games, maybe all of them. 

Josh Langford averaged 11.7 points per game this season. If we get that from him, MSU is hard to beat.

Cassius Winston has shot .526 from 3-point land this season, and has averaged just short of 7 assists per game. If we get that from him, MSU is hard to beat.

If the team can avoid looking like they forgot how to play basketball, which they have at times, including too much in the two losses to Michigan, MSU is hard to beat.

But those are a lot of “ifs” for a team many expect to win a national championship.

And that’s why I can’t expect that. Or anything else. They could win the whole thing, or they could get bounced before the Sweet 16.

Who the heck knows?

One more note to Michigan fans reading this: If your team would have started earlier than 9:45 p.m. Thursday night, the story of the game would have been in this space. Honest.

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Posted by Scott Yoshonis

Scott is the sports editor of the Manistee News Advocate. You can reach him at (231) 398-3112 or syoshonis@pioneergroup.com.

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