We’re going to be quick with the recap here because now that it has arrived, all we care about is March Madness. Miami beat Syracuse 62-57 in its opening game of the ACC Tournament, in what was Miami’s best offensive performance in several weeks. The loss likely ultimately eliminated Syracuse from the NCAA Tournament, so that was an added bonus as well. Miami received solid contributions from everyone on the roster, particularly Kamari Murphy who led the Canes with 16 points and 10 rebounds, while Ja’Quan Newton played very well with 11 points, 6 assists and only 1 turnover. Things were quite differently in game 2 against North Carolina, as the Tar Heels played nearly flawless basketball outside of the last minute of the first half en route to a 78-53 defeat of Miami. Bruce Brown played extremely well for Miami, but he was the lone bright spot in this one as the Canes turned the ball over frequently, missed open 3 pointers frequently, and failed to play solid transition defense. Never mind that now though as we are DANCING for the second year in a row (should be three years in a row now, but whatever).
Miami was drawn to the Midwest bracket as an 8th seed against Michigan State in a game to be played in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Not sure how many of you out there are Canes fans residing in the Tulsa, Oklahoma area, but if you are, please show up and support our guys! Whatever your feelings are as to how the Canes were seeded, or who they were drawn against, or who could possibly be waiting in the next round (Spoiler alert: It will be Kansas), throw that out the window because it does not matter anymore. This game will be played immediately following Kansas’ annihilation of North Carolina Central or UC Davis, so the start time is merely an estimate. For those of you partaking in St. Patrick’s Day activities, hopefully you remember to chug some water during the festivities, not only for your personal health, but also so that can kinda/sorta/somewhat remember the game. So let’s discuss Michigan State.
Friday, March 17, 9:20 PM EST (Approximately), TNT
When you discuss the mainstays of March Madness and college basketball, one of the first teams that comes to mind is Michigan State, and that is due in large part to Tom Izzo. Coach Izzo took over the Spartans in 1995, and after two NIT appearances in his first two seasons, has managed to take Michigan State to the NCAA tournament every single year since. This will be the Spartans’ 20th consecutive appearance. Currently, only Duke (22) and Kansas (28) have more consecutive appearances. In those 19 appearances prior to this year, Michigan State has been eliminated in the first round on only four occasions, and only once in the last 10 years – which just happened to be last year when they were absolutely shocked in one of the biggest upsets in tournament history when they fell as a #2 seed to the #15 seed Middle Tennessee. So naturally, the expectation is that this Spartans team cannot possibly lose in the first round again, right? Well, maybe so. This is a drastically different team than last year’s team that suffered the surprise exit. Five of the top six leading scorers from a year ago are no longer with the program. The sixth (discussed below) will not be playing against Miami. As such, the “motivation” of last year’s exit is not likely to play much (if any) a factor in this game.
This iteration of the Michigan State Spartans relies heavily on youth. The widely-considered best player on the team, and best pro prospect, is 6’7″ freshman forward Miles Bridges. Widely considered a borderline lottery pick in this year’s draft, Bridges does it all for the Spartans, averaging 16.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2 assists per game. He has freakish athleticism, but is not afraid to shoot beyond the arc (with both good and bad results). While Bridges gets most of the attention, the play of another freshman, 6’8″ post player Nick Ward, has been consistently good all season long. Ward does not venture out beyond the paint, but he averages 13.7 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game. He’s also been remarkably good down the stretch for Michigan State exceeding his season averages in 5 of his last 6 games. The rest of the starting five features two other freshman, 6’0″ PG Cassius Winston and 6’5″ wing Joshua Langford, as well as sophomore 6’4″ Matt McQuaid. As you can see, this is a very, very young Michigan State team. And here is where we point out that on February 18th, the Spartans lost senior guard (and team leader) Eron Harris to a season-ending knee injury, a tough blow to a team without much experience anywhere else on the roster.
Michigan State played a ridiculously tough non-conference schedule, especially considering the youth of the team: Arizona, Kentucky, Florida Gulf Coast, St. Johns, Baylor, Wichita State and Duke before beginning conference play. Of those, while competitive in most, they only defeated Florida Gulf Coast and Wichita State. Moreover, once in conference play, the Spartans severely struggled away from home, going 2-7 on the road compared to 8-1 at home. Since Harris was injured against Purdue (a 17 point road loss), the Spartans have gone 3-3 with wins over Nebraska, Wisconsin and Penn St., but losses to Illinois, Maryland and Minnesota.
From a numbers standpoint, Michigan State is an above-average offensive and defensive team, but nothing spectacular. On offense, they shoot the ball pretty well, and avoid blocks, but struggle with turnovers, offensive rebounds and making free throws. Defensively, they do not force turnovers, but limit second-chance opportunities, while doing a decent job in terms of field goal percentage.
Miami has opened as a 2 point favorite, and the latest line has some movement in Miami’s favor to a 2.5 point favorite.
Sunday, March 19, Game Time and TV Network TBD
Unless the biggest upset in NCAA Tournament history takes place, the winner of Miami-Michigan State will face Kansas on Sunday, likely to be Sunday evening, but this will be announced Friday night. At the time of writing this preview, Kansas does not even know it’s first round opponent yet, but quite frankly, it does not matter since a 16 seed has yet to defeat a 1 seed in the tournament’s history. Suffice to say, should Miami beat Michigan State, and Kansas somehow lose its first game, Miami would be a MASSIVE favorite no matter the opponent and Miami should win. So instead, let’s focus on Kansas. As noted above in the Michigan State preview, Kansas has the longest consecutive streak of tournament appearances, now at 28 years and counting. While Coach Bill Self has been criticized in the past for his tournament shortcomings, I am not one to personally buy into those narratives. But, if you desire to venture that route, in both 2013-14 and 2014-15, Kansas lost in the 2nd round (both times as a 2 seed) much to the chagrin of Jayhawks fans everywhere. Way back in 2009-10, the #1 seeded Kansas Jayhawks lost to #9 seed Northern Iowa in a game played Oklahoma City. So there ya go.
Kansas is certainly deserving of its #1 seed by virtue of a stellar 28-4 record and regular season Big XII title, so understand that this entire discussion will be with the understanding that Kansas is a very, very good basketball team. Kansas lost its opening game of the season in overtime to Indiana. To give you an idea of how long ago that was, the Hurricanes football team had yet to play Virginia, NC State or Duke (much less the bowl game). After that loss, other than a neutral-site victory by 2 over Duke a few days later, Kansas played a relatively easy non-conference schedule before reeling off 16 wins out of 18 conference games en route to a 28-3 regular season. The two losses were West Virginia away – who I think is a very, very good basketball team – and Iowa State in overtime at home – and Canes fans are familiar with how good Iowa State is. Do note that Kansas won both of the reverse fixtures (WVU at home, Iowa State away) to split the regular season series with each. The Jayhawks lost their opening Big XII Tournament game to TCU, although it should be noted they were without star freshman Josh Jackson, who was suspended for an accumulation of off-court incidents, the latest of which was hitting a parked car and fleeing the scene. However, when asked if this would result in missed NCAA Tournament games for Jackson, Coach Bill Self answered, “Hell no”, so that Jayhawks should be a full strength.
Speaking of Josh Jackson, he’s widely considered a top 5 NBA lottery pick in June and is this writer’s (JT) hope to be the next member of the Orlando Magic. The 6’8″ wing (16.4 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 3.1 apg, 1.6 spg, 1.1 spg) reminds many scouts of Jimmy Butler and Kawhi Leonard, and if you do not follow the NBA, these are two players that are ridiculously good defenders with a vast array of offensive skills. His one weakness is outside shooting, but even that has become better of late. As you would expect of a team of Kansas’ caliber, it’s not a one player show. The leader of the team is 5’11” senior guard Frank Mason (20.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 5.1 apg, 1.3 spg). It feels as if he’s been at Kansas forever, and as long as the game is close, he’s going to play nearly every minute. Same with Devonte’ Graham (3.1 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 4.3 apg, 1.5 spg), a 6’2″ junior combo guard that plays well off of Mason and Jackson. The rest of the lineup sees minutes to 6’5″ sophomore wing Lagerald Vick, 6’10” senior center Landen Lucas, 6’8″ junior forward Sviatosloav Mykhailiuk and 6’10” sophomore Cartlon Bragg.
The Jayhawks are excellent on offense, scoring an astounding 1.21 points per possession, thanks in part to excellent shooting (40.5% on 3point attempts) and stellar offensive rebounding. They play at a very fast tempo, which leaves them prone to turnovers. Surprisingly, they also struggle at the free throw line, the combination of which could cause issues in a close game. However, most advanced metrics have Kansas as being the weakest of the #1 seeds in this bracket, and that’s due primarily to a relatively weak defense. They are prone to giving up good looks at the three-point line, while also giving up offensive rebounds. As such, the key to defeating Kansas appears straightforward: rebound the ball on both ends and take advantage of open 3 pointers on offense. It’s going to be a tall task to knock off the number one seed, but there is a path to do it.
I do think that Miami was a bit under-seeded, but it’s not about the seed, it’s about the draw. And while there’s never a good time to see Tom Izzo and Michigan State if you are an opponent, the least of those times is in March Madness. That being said, this is not your typical Michigan State team, and quite honestly, I think Miami matches up really well with the Spartans. It’s going to be a tough battle, but I do think this is a game that Miami wins if it can limit contributions from players not named Miles Bridges. The media narrative has already begun with Tom Izzo versus Bill Self in round 2, so Miami should feel rather free of pressure from that aspect. Plus, the Canes are the more veteran team, as several guys on our roster contributed to the Sweet 16 run a year ago. They get it done in Round 1: Miami wins by 7.
Once past Michigan State, all the pressure shifts to Kansas as they will be expected to advance to the Sweet 16. I still believe that Miami’s “A game” is able to beat anyone, so this comes down to whether Miami’s “A game” shows up and/or Kansas has an off night. If so, Miami will make the Sweet 16. However, from a prediction standpoint, it’s hard for me to predict Miami to play two really good games back to back away from home. I do think Miami will make it very, very difficult, but Kansas pulls out a nail-biter to win by 3.
Michigan State reminds me a bit of Syracuse. Hyped coming into the year, but their resume is not fitting of the school’s brand name. They are scarier based on reputation versus actual quality. They really challenged themselves in the out of conference, but didn’t really win anything there. Just with the sheer volume of out of conference opponents, you kind of expect them to fluke a win or 2 (other than Wichita State and FGCU). Also, the Canes struggle with teams that either shoot the 3 ball really well or come at them in waves on the interior. Michigan State does neither. Miami should be the better team, and I expect them to win by 7.
The MO for Kansas is to play down to their opponent’s quality, which would suggest a close game. But the thing with the Canes is that when they’re overmatched, it shows up in a big way. This game is really about Kansas. If KU plays their best, Miami will get run off the court. If they play poorly, the Canes can win. But I think the Canes come in a bit bruised after a tough game against Michigan State, while Kansas is ready to go. Canes fight early, but fade late and Kansas wins by 13.