A Closer Look at #9 Michigan State (20-14) versus #1 Kansas (29-4)
Today’s NCAA second round battle is going to be epic. The young Spartans bring in the credibility of one of the nation’s elite programs with perhaps the best coach in the game. While young and depleted by injury, they still bring fighters mentality. Kansas brings the tradition program, experienced and loaded with talent.
Heading into this game the Spartans Hall of Fame head coach Tom Izzo knows exactly what his Spartans are facing. “There's no question Kansas might be the best team in the country if you look at the experience they have, the guard play which usually wins for you in a tournament, very well coached, lethal fast break.”
He continued, “And I think the one advantage, you know, that we've had is this will be the fourth team that was at one time or another was ranked No. 1 in the country. And I think Arizona was as high as 3, and Wisconsin just beat one of the No. 1s and we had a chance to beat them at the end of the year. So at least I think we've played -- we can tell our team we've played against a lot of these teams that are ranked high.”
Izzo went on to almost sound poetic about the game, “And on any given Sunday, it's about the 40 minutes of ball that's being played. And there's no question we might have played 30 of the best minutes of basketball we played all year in that stretch. There's no question we might have played some of the worst and dumbest basketball of the year in the first 10 minutes of that game, with the turnovers and fouled two seconds into the game which set a Michigan State record, maybe North American, to be honest with you (laughter).”
Izzo doesn’t run from the youth of the Spartans. In fact he finally embraces it, “So we can go both ways with our youth. You're talking about a very experienced team against a very young team, but one thing about youth, you win a game and there is an excitement, there's an enthusiasm. There's a new feeling. And that's helped me even -- you know, when you win a decent amount of games in this tournament, like we have over the years, it's just -- I won't say it's ho-hum, but it gets to be. There was nothing ho-hum about yesterday for me or for them, and that'll, I hope, propel us into playing well tomorrow against a good team. And should be a few Kansas fans here, I would think, and it'll be a great situation for us.”
Kansas head coach Bill Self sees some interesting things in the Spartans. “The big fellow (Nick Ward) reminds me of Zach Randolph. He probably doesn't shoot it as often from the perimeter, but I think there's a lot of similarities, hands and feet. Miles is obviously a fabulous world-class athlete, so there's a lot of guys you could probably draw comparisons to in the NBA. But I think on the perimeter -- and of course, Cassius, I saw him play quite a bit in AAU ball, and the thing that does impress me is he knows how to make the hard play, but more importantly, he knows how to make the easy play. And he's very good at it.”
Kansas isn’t dumb. They understand that in March they might as well call them the Giant Killers instead of the Spartans. Star Jayhawk Frank Mason, III said, “Well, it's Michigan State, you know. No matter how their season is, there's a great tradition there. Great coaching staff. Tom Izzo is one of the best and I think he do a great job of preparing his guys for these type of moments. I think the guys when they get to the NCAA tournament, they play their best ball and they really get up and down, and they defend. That's when they really need to play their best ball, here in the tournament. I think they do a great job of that.”
Kansas Coach Bill Self has been trying with great emphasis to get his kids to embrace how good the Spartans really are. “I don't know that there's anything that will kick start our guys to make us more aware. I mean, it goes without saying that we're aware. I mean, I had the chance to coach against Tom three years in the league and we play in the Champions Classic. We don't play every year, but we probably average playing about every other year since I've been gone. And the thing about it, he's a terrific coach, and I don't know what he does the beginning of March that's different than what most mortals do is he gets his team always ready to play. And our guys respect that and they know that, and certainly that's not one that we have to remind our guys of because they're very well aware of it.”
MSU will not be able to overcome an abysmal slow start like they had versus Miami. That doesn’t mean they have to come out and light the Oklahoma prairie of fire either. I expect Kansas to start fast and Michigan State to battle back and that is OK. They learned a lot about themselves versus Miami.
Spartans senior guard Alvin Ellis III talked about the Spartans slow start versus Miami and said, “You know, it started with our turnovers. They sped us up. They got us going, and they got easy transition buckets. Once we stopped turning the ball over, they didn't score that easily, and we went on a run.”
Ellis knows that Kansas likes to run, but he said that plays right into the Spartans hands. “You know, that's our game. We like the fast pace of games and we don't get tired that easily. We got a lot of depth on the floor and on our bench, and we'll be ready for that matchup.”
Tom Izzo knows that today’s contest will be a true reflection of his team. This game will tell us how far they have truly come. “You know, we're a good team that -- I'm anxious to see how we respond to having some success, and I say that, you know, we beat Wisconsin late in the year. We were playing better then. They just beat Villanova. And but last night the biggest thing we did, I mean, we didn't get punched in the nose. It was we got knocked out in those first eight minutes. When you're down 17 to 5 with all those young guys, I mean, you could lose it. And when they came back, that was a giant step, and even though we don't have the experience, now we have some enthusiasm that young guys have that older guys, you know. It's just another day, do your job, get it done. These guys I think are excited, you know. How far that'll carry us, I'm as anxious to see as maybe a lot of our fans are.”
But the Jayhawks have to understand the Spartans are not intimidated by them. They want this match. Now they certainly need to be careful what they wish for, but they got them.
Jayhawk star Devonte’ Graham said of the Spartans, “They run so many plays and got so many sets that one day of preparation, you know, you really can't get a good feel for all the stuff they run or try to memorize a lot of their plays. But we just had practice and we just went over the scouting report kind of in depth and we'll go back to the hotel and do the same thing. So it's just trying to get a good feel for a lot of the sets that they run.”
It’s time now. This matchup is personal. This is what Spartan basketball is all about. The early mornings, the play anyone anywhere mentality and the brutal grind of a season come down to just over two hours this afternoon. Win or go home. It is the NCAA tournament and this is why they call Izzo: Mr. March!
This game tips off at roughly 5:20 PM ET today and can be seen on CBS.