The Michigan State Spartans are poised for a return to the Final Four this season.
The Michigan State Spartans always seem poised for a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. Since Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo’s arrival in East Lansing, Mich., the Spartans have appeared in seven Final Fours. In addition to their success in the postseason, the Spartans have had several players find success at the next level. Most recently, Denver Nuggets shooting guard Gary Harris, Minnesota Timberwolves power forward Adreian Payne and All-Star power forward and NBA champion Draymond Green.
Izzo’s sustained success at Michigan State has become so mundane that every one of his seasons seem to get overlooked. In the midst of the Wisconsin Badgers’ run to the championship game and the Kentucky Wildcats’ perfect regular season last year, the Spartans managed to finish the regular season with a 27-12 (12-6 in conference) record and an eventual berth in the Final Four.
This season, Michigan State is led by senior shooting guard Denzel Valentine, who’s a contender for the Player of the Year award. Valentine is college basketball’s version of Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook. The 6-foot-5 guard averages nearly 20 points and eight rebounds with a little more than seven assists per game with the Spartans. Valentine is extremely accurate from beyond the arc, shooting more than 44 percent from three-point range this year. Valentine’s combination of athleticism and shooting touch makes him the Spartans’ jack-of-all-trades.
As is the case in most seasons, a single player can’t lead a team to the NCAA Tournament. However, Valentine isn’t alone in Michigan State’s push toward the postseason. Spartans guard Bryn Forbes, a transfer from Cleveland State University, is shooting over 48 percent from the three-point line and the field. Forbes has established himself as one of college basketball’s best shooters, and he’s an improved threat shooting off the dribble, something the 6-foot-3 guard did with less success during his career at Cleveland State.
The difference between Michigan State and other Big Ten contenders is a consistent inside presence. Spartans forward Matt Costello is an elite post player, and his relentless energy on both sides of the ball motivates and inspires the rest of the team. Costello and Valentine provide inspiration to their teammates and serve as calming influences when the Spartans are on the big stage. Meanwhile, Izzo has done a tremendous job of bringing in young and athletic guards to support his two veteran leaders.
The Spartans continue to navigate their way through the thick of their Big Ten schedule as the conference’s teams beat each other up. Indiana point guard Yogi Ferrell and the Hoosiers seem to be the team that could challenge Michigan State in the Big Ten Tournament. Despite the Spartans’ 19-point win over the Hoosiers on Valentine’s Day, Indiana continues to improve as the season progresses. Ferrell is surrounded by accurate shooters, including power forward Max Bielfeldt. A transfer from Michigan, Bielfeldt has developed an effective three-point shot, something he never had during his time in Ann Arbor, Mich. Ferrell is shooting nearly 43 percent from beyond the arc this season, in addition to almost 53 percent from the field. The Hoosiers’ interior success gives guards like Ferrell and senior Nick Zeisloft space to shoot, and the ability to penetrate the lane and find open shooters.
The Spartans will be challenged in the Big Ten Tournament, most likely by Indiana head coach Tom Crean and his Hoosiers. However, Indiana isn’t the only NCAA Tournament bound team from the Big Ten. The Maryland Terrapins, led by likely future first-round NBA Draft pick Melo Trimble, are 22-5 this season. Maryland cashed in on college basketball’s “free agency” period as Duke transfer Rasheed Sulaimon has been one of the high-volume scorers for the Terrapins this season with Trimble and stud freshman center Diamond Stone. The Terps have enough talent to reach the Final Four. The question is whether the Terrapins will give all they’ve got in every postseason game.
Michigan State could be the best team in the Big Ten. A combination of senior leadership, multiple high-volume scorers and elite coaching makes the Spartans the best bet right now to cut down the nets in Houston, site of the 2016 Final Four.