First look: Michigan State

Spartans brings NCAA Tournament pedigree to Sweet 16

COLUMBUS, Ohio – There’s an old adage that it doesn’t matter what Michigan State does during the regular season. The Spartans are a team built for March.

Actually, that might not be that old, and it might not even be a hugely popular saying. It is very true, though.

No matter what Michigan State does during the regular season, it can be all thrown out the door when the NCAA Tournament starts.

“Coming to this tournament we just told each other, ‘Hey, we see the coach's game plan. We all play together. We bring in passion,” Michigan State wing Branden Dawson said. “We trust one other then the sky's the limit for us.”

In the NCAA Tournament, it usually has been the limit under 20-year coach Tom Izzo, who has made 13 Sweet 16s in his 20 years leading the Spartans.

During that time, Michigan State (25-11) has won the Big Ten Conference outright just twice, and Izzo is 38-14 in the ‘Big Dance.’

In a 60-54 victory against No. 2 Virginia in the second round, Michigan State proved once again that the Spartans’ seed is irrelevant.

“Coming to this tournament being a 7 seed, it's definitely us-against-the-world type of mentality for all of us,” said Dawson, who is third on the team with 12 points per game and lead the Spartans with nine rebounds per game. “We keep playing the way we're playing, we'll definitely make a good run.”

Michigan State has made four straight Sweet 16s despite being seeded higher than No. 3 just once.

“In all honesty, we're not as talented, but that happens to a lot of teams,” Izzo said of Michigan State’s past teams. “I did say this is one of the more together teams we've had ever, ever.”

Why Michigan State is so successful in March is hidden in its stats from this year. The Spartans always have talented point guard play but share the ball as a team – ranked fourth in the nation with more than 17 assists per game – something that is pivotal this time of year: Crisp ball movement.

Five players average at least three assists.

There is no one player to focus on, no dominant scorer that needs to be stopped. Travis Trice, who leads the Spartans with 15 points per game, took on that role against Virginia when he scored 13 of Michigan State’s first 15 points during the first five-and-a-half minutes of the game.

“I've always had great players around me and all I care about is winning, whether that's playing a lot, scoring a lot, not even playing at all, that's all I care about,” Trice said.

Denzel Valentine is averaging 14.5 rebounds, six rebounds and more than four assists per game, and with a 42-percent clip form behind the 3-point arc, he might be Michigan State’s best all-around player.

He’s also 6-foot-5, 220 pounds.

“At this point in the season, we're playing teams that we're not familiar with,” said Valentine, who was limited 21 minutes against Virginia. “So, if we got to do something that's uncharacteristic of us, then we just have to do it and we've got to trust in the coaches that they're being right.”

Michigan State is usually right with Izzo at the bench.

Michigan State, which won 23 games this season – the fewest in four years, didn’t have a signature win before Sunday’s victory against Virginia. The Spartans lost to Kansas, Duke, Maryland and Wisconsin – the Badgers and Terrapins twice – and only won two games against ranked teams in eight tries.

None of that matters now. It never has with Izzo.

“At this time of year, your focus has to be incredible, and that was incredible focus if you ask me,” Izzo said.

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