March 1, 2014

MSU Primed For a National Championship Run

By - Andy Garcia

Michigan State entered the 2013-2014 season as the No. 2 ranked team in the nation, and rightfully so, as they got off to an 18-1 start; the best in school history.

Photo by: Scott Park
However, since junior forward Branden Dawson broke his hand prior to MSU's loss to arch-rival Michigan on January 25th, the Spartans have alternated back and forth between wins and losses.

Their current 22-6 record is still good enough to be ranked 18th in the country, but they now must look up at the Wolverines in the Big Ten standings after blowing their revenge opportunity and a chance to remain atop the conference. While a home loss to Nebraska can be chalked up to a lackluster performance by the Spartans, the remaining blemishes on their record can be attributed to solid teams (UNC, Michigan (twice), Georgetown, Wisconsin) simply earning the victories.

Getting swept by their intrastate rival this season may have been the pivotal point in their quest for a national title. This was the wake up call MSU needed. Couple that with their Spartan in shining armor, Dawson, back in the lineup, and I do not see Michigan State losing another game the rest of the year.

Yes, that includes the Big Ten tournament and NCAA tourney.

The Spartans have endured a flurry of injuries all season long. Multiple key players have missed extended time. Despite the inconsistencies in the lineup, State has still managed to play well. They remain a squad that no one wants to see in March, and for good reason.

Widely considered one of the top college coaches in the game, Tom Izzo has himself a roster loaded with depth this time around. The team has multiple key components. The scoring is paced by star sophomore Gary Harris (17.9 ppg). Many people thought he would be a one-and-done player, but Harris opted to stay put another year. The ability to get his own shot goes a long way for the Spartans on offense. Forwards Adreian Payne (16.4 ppg, 7.7 rpg) and Branden Dawson (10.2 ppg, 8.7 rpg) anchor the front line and can control the glass. Senior guard Keith Appling (13.6 ppg, 4.8 apg) is also an essential piece to the overall puzzle. He continues to battle through a nagging wrist injury suffered back in December, and it appears he still has a little ways to go before he's back to 100%. His toughness and experience is unmatched. Backing him at the point, junior Travis Trice (45% 3-pt) has filled in admirably, hitting from behind the arc in critical moments. The wild card for Michigan State is do-it-all sophomore Denzel Valentine (8.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 3.9 apg). He is an absolute x-factor.

Not only is this team loaded with individual talent, but more importantly, they mesh extremely well together in all aspects of the game.

The Spartans are well-rounded in every facet. They are tremendous in transition, but can also play a solid half-court game. And when they want to put forth the effort, they can lock down on the defensive end as well. They rank 42nd in scoring offense (77.3 ppg) and 63rd in scoring D (65.8 ppg) out of 351 Division I teams. They are also 36th in rebounding, 4th in assists, 41st in field goal percentage, 23rd in defensive FG percentage, and 35th in 3-pt shooting.

Basically, they do everything well.

But probably the most significant factor in why Michigan State is suited to make a run at the title this season is the fact that they play exceptionally well away from the Breslin Students Events Center.

It's rare for a college team to be just as good on the road as they are on their own home floor. MSU has proven to be just that. They sport a 12-3 record in East Lansing, 7-2 in true road games, and 4-1 at neutral locations. In order to make some serious noise during March Madness, a team must be able to play well on the road, seeing as nobody technically holds home court. The Spartans seem to thrive in hostile environments. They do not fold under pressure, and that bodes well for them come tournament time.

The Big Ten is probably the best conference in college basketball, and having played against solid competition all season long, all the while fighting through their own adversity, will certainly give MSU a boost heading into the Big Dance. It is imperative that they get hot and win the Big Ten tourney to give themselves the best chance once the big bracket gets underway.

I expect they will.

And if they do, the Spartans will be cutting down the nets in April.

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