NCAA preview: MSU vs. George Mason

The two teams met early last season on December 5, 2004, with the Spartans pulling out a close game, 66-60. The Patriots made a late run to pull within one point with under five minutes left, but Paul Davis' late bucket gave the Spartans the margin of victory.

DAYTON, OH - It's time to dance for the ninth straight year for Tom Izzo's Michigan State Spartans.

The #6-seed in the Washington D.C. Region, the Spartans' first round matchup in Dayton is against #11-seed George Mason (23-7).

The two teams met early last season on December 5, 2004, with the Spartans pulling out a close game, 66-60. The Patriots made a late run to pull within one point with under five minutes left, but Paul Davis' late bucket created space that would not get made up.

Maurice Ager scored 13 points for the Spartans while Lamar Butler's 19 points and Jai Lewis' 12 held the Patriots within reach.

"With last year's game, they kept hanging around, and they have most of the players back from last year," said Tom Izzo.

George Mason finished 16-13 last season with no playoffs, while MSU went to the Final Four. Now the teams square off in the NCAA Tournament with both squads returning veteran starting lineups.

Now seniors, Lewis leads the Patriots in scoring (14 PPG) with Butler adding 11.4 points per game. Sophomore Will Thomas averages 11.6 points per game.

Out of the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA), the Patriots have a great defensive team, only giving up 58.8 points per game to their opponents. At the time, the Spartans were averaging a whopping 103.3 points per game on the early season, but they ran into the Patriots hard defenders, anchored by Lewis, who is a hefty 6-foot-7, 275 pounds.

Lewis will be countered in Friday's game by his counterpart big-man, 6-foot-11, 270 pound Paul Davis.

"They are a very good defensive team, which concerns me because that is usually the type of play that wins this time of year," said Izzo, who compared the Patriot defense to a poor man's Illinois defense.

In last season's matchup against one another, Davis got a slight edge, shooting six of seven from the field to Lewis' six of ten. Both played efficient defense and managed to stay clear of foul trouble as well, Davis has three fouls and Lewis four.

This season's matchup could get heated; Lewis' big strong body can really cover a great amount of space on the floor, while Davis has improved his outside shot. Look for Lewis to pound the ball inside looking to get Davis called for some early fouls. With Davis out of the game, the Spartans are an outside shooting team, which is what the Patriots want.

One key player missing in the starting lineup will be senior guard Tony Skinn.

Skinn is serving a one-game suspension for his actions in George Mason's last game against Hofstra in the CAA conference tournament. Skinn intentionally punched Hofstra player Loren Stokes in the groin and was ejected from the game.

The loss of Skinn proves to be at the worst time, as the Patriots could use his offense (12.8 points per game) against a Spartan defense that breaks down at times.

In Skinn's absence, junior guard Gabe Norwood will start and see crucial minutes in a huge game.

Sophomore guard Folarin Campbell (10.2 PPG) will join Norwood, Thomas, Lewis, and Butler in the starting lineup.

"Campbell is a big key for them; he's a versatile guy who plays some point and some wing. Thomas is very athletic and Butler is a tremendous shooter who hurt us a lot last year," said Izzo.

After coming close last season, the Patriots have all the confidence as they another crack at knocking off the Spartans.

After that trip to the Final Four last season, the Spartans have high expectations in the tournament every year, and with one of the most potent offensive trios in the field of 65, they could make it to Indianapolis for yet another Final Four appearance.

Seniors Maurice Ager and Paul Davis are coming off impressive performances in the Big Ten Tournament and hope their strong play continues in the NCAA tournament. Ager leads the team with 19.1 points per game, Davis follows with 17.8, and junior Shannon Brown completes the trio with 17.6 points per game.

Ager and Brown combine as a deadly long-range combo, and could come up big if Davis has trouble getting inside on Lewis. Yet as a veteran, Davis will find a way to break through inside, opening up the outside shot for Ager and Brown.

In Michigan State's eleven losses this season, a main factor why was because of foul trouble and poor shooting. When Davis or Ager are not on their game, Shannon Brown picks up the slack to a minimum.

In their loss to Iowa in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals, apparent fatigue seemed to get the best of the Spartans' shooting, causing the shots to bounce off the front of the rim. The team continued to attempt outside shots and they continued to bounce off the front.

The key is for Davis to establish his presence inside, or else the Patriots will be grabbing lots of rebounds off missed shots from outside. If the Spartans can work the ball around and get Ager, Brown, Davis, and even Drew Neitzel some open shots, the Patriots will feel the full extent of the Spartans' potential.

That potential is what has at times appeared in glimpses, but not shown itself fully from Tom Izzo's club this season.

All it takes for the Spartans to show their potential is the smell of March Madness in the air and a possible big first round victory. The Washington D.C. Region should watch out for the Spartans, should they play up to their potential. #3-seed North Carolina looms in the second round for the Spartans, in a rematch of last year's national semifinal.

This region also has #1-seed Connecticut and Big Ten rival #4-seed Illinois as well.

Even without one of their top players, George Mason proves to be a very lethal team staring down the Spartans. While they managed to escape the first time, the Patriots will do everything they can to not let it happen again.

If Michigan State wins, they will play the winner of #3-seed North Carolina and #14-seed Murray State.

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