The Spartans are one of the more popular picks to advance to the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament, even topping President Barack Obama’s bracket as the eventual winner. The President’s postseason hopes were kept alive Saturday, as fourth-seeded tournament favorite Michigan State avoided the March Madness upset by turning away no. 12 seed Harvard 80-73 to advance to the Sweet 16.
Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo is on familiar ground. In his nineteen years at the controls, the Spartans have been one of the most successful NCAA Tournament teams in the history of college basketball. The list of accomplishments is unparalleled. Izzo has guided Michigan State to 17 consecutive NCAA Tournaments (the third longest active streak behind Duke and Kansas), one National Championship, five Final Fours, seven Elite 8’s, and twelve Sweet 16’s.
This year’s road to March Madness was anything but smooth. After a number two preseason national ranking and a promising win over then no. 1 Kentucky, the Spartans took over the top spot in the rankings, but the billing was short-lived. A 79-65 upset against North Carolina would knock them out of the number one ranking just weeks later. Michigan State would regroup to take its next four and finish the non-conference slate 11-1.
Big Ten league play also began with promise. The Spartans would rattle off their first seven and climb back to number three in the rankings only to hit a wall and sandwich wins with losses all the way through the last half of the conference schedule. The slide ended with losses in seven of Michigan State’s final twelve games for a mediocre 12-6 finish. A turnaround would follow, however, and the Spartans dominated the Big 10 Tournament en route to a commanding 69-55 victory over in-state rival Michigan, who they lost to twice during the regular season, in the title game.
Against Harvard, MSU led wire to wire and held a twelve-point advantage at the beak, but holding true to form, the Crimson would storm back and make this march Madness matchup interesting. Behind a 16-3 run, Harvard clawed its way back in to tie the game at 55 at the midway point of the second half. The Spartans would respond, however, with an 11-4 spurt that ultimately put the game out of reach and ensured that tournament favorite Michigan State would avoid the upset. The Spartans connected on 49.1 percent from the floor and hit 7 of 21 from distance, while also converting 17 of 22 from the free throw line. Junior G Branden Dawson was the hero with a game-high 26 points on 12 of 15 from the field to go along with 9 rebounds.
Michigan State has now reached its twelfth Sweet 16 in the last seventeen years. They now await the winner of no.1 seed Virginia and eighth-seeded Memphis. Either should prove to be a formidable opponent, but a matchup with the upstart Cavaliers, who won both the ACC regular season and tournament crowns, would likely make for better viewing. Either way, matching Michigan State’s length and athleticism will be a tall order. For tournament favorite Michigan State to avoid another March Madness upset if they face Memphis, a dominant performance from senior F Adreian Payne could be in order. Payne went for 41 against Delaware in the second round, but scored just 12 against Harvard.
Commentary by Rick Sarlat