The Old Spice Classic begins tonight with the Spartans playing the Maryland Terrapins at 7:00 p.m. in Orlando.
It is only November, but the Spartans' performance this weekend can have a profound impact on where the Spartans are seeded in the NCAA Tournament. A high seed would probably grant the Spartans a short trip to Dayton for the first and second rounds, and maybe a trip to Indianapolis for the regional.
The level of competition in this tournament rivals any other preseason tournament that is taking place this week. All eight participants have had recent success in the NCAA Tournament.
Wichita State reached the Sweet 16 in 2006. Oklahoma State has won the Big 12 twice this decade and reached the Final Four in 2004. Siena defeated fourth-seeded Vanderbilt Commodores by 21 points in last year's NCAA Tournament and returns all five starters.
The three aforementioned teams are considered the sixth, seventh, and eight best teams in Orlando, and I would have to agree. The Spartans shouldn't have to worry too much about the Shockers, Cowboys, or Saints. The four remaining teams pose the biggest threats for the Spartans.
On Thursday, the Terrapins will take the court with the hopes that they will upset the Spartans.
Since winning the championship in 2004, Gary Williams' team has not been close to reaching the status that they were at when Juan Dixon, Steve Blake, Lonnie Baxter, and Chris Wilcox played ball in College Park.
The present team still has decent talent, though. The Terps are led by Greivis Vasquez. The Venezuelan point guard is averaging just over 22 points per game, just under 8 rebounds, and 5 assists. Maryland is 3-0, but needed overtime in their last game to defeat Vermont.
The likely second round opponent for MSU is Gonzaga. The Bulldogs, who are ranked 10 in the Coaches Poll, are always a trendy pick to reach the Final Four, but in some ways they have become a victim of their own success. The expectations are high and they aren't viewed as a mid-major team anymore, regardless of what conference they play in.
Coach Mark Few does have a team that can play with almost anybody. Senior guard Jeremy Pargo is small, but athletic, and his experience is valuable to his team. Josh Heytvelt is a formidable presence down low, and he is averaging 15 points and 7.5 rebounds. Micah Downs has settled in nicely on the wing for Gonzaga after transferring from Kansas. The former McDonald's All-American has a versatile game, and can hit shots inside and out.
The most talented player for the Zags is sophomore Austin Daye, who probably won't be in Spokane for four years. Daye is 6-foot-11 and has numerous skills. He doesn't weigh 200-pounds, so he won't play on the inside all the time, but he is a good defender, as he is averaging 2 blocks per game this season. The Spartans do have more depth than the Bulldogs, and I believe that will come into play if this match-up should happen.
The Hoyas are a team that can give Michigan State some problems.
John Thompson III is one of the brightest minds in all of college basketball. He runs a style that is Princeton-like, and he has top notch athletes running it. The Spartans have had some breakdowns defensively this season, and it is a must that they remain patient and disciplined while defending this team. One lapse and DaJuan Summers will cut back door and make the highlight reels.
Summers could give Raymar Morgan some problems. He is a wing player that will play inside, plus he is 6-8 and weighs 238 pounds. Jesse Sapp is a great defender in the backcourt. And freshman Greg Monroe is a force on the block. He is averaging 17 points per game and 7.5 rebounds.
Tennessee is a team that is loaded with athletes, and they definitely can run with the Spartans. The Vols reached the Sweet 16 last season and have some key pieces that returned.
Junior Tyler Smith is the team's best player. He will play some on the inside, but he projects as a small forward at the next level. Wayne Chism, also a junior, leads the team in rebounding with just below 10 per game. Junior winger J.P. Prince injured his ankle in a game against Middle Tennessee State, and may not play in the tournament. And Scotty Hopson is a talented freshman, who Coach Bruce Pearl hopes can fill the void left by Chris Lofton.
The Vols will play a full-court press, but the key is to play patient basketball. The Spartans can run, but they also can play in the half-court. Getting Tennessee in a half court game will get them off their rhythm. They were not impressive in the half-court last season, and Lofton isn't there to bail the team out with his long-range jumpers. If the Spartans and Volunteers collide in the final, the Spartans' use of three point guards will come in handy.
The next to weeks can potentially propel the Michigan State to a No. 1 ranking if they have a good showing in this tournament and defeat the Tar Heels next week. More importantly, it can give the Spartans momentum that will be difficult to quell for any team.
They will be the highest ranked, deepest, and most talented team in Orlando, but that really won't mean anything if they let up for one moment.