Michigan State and Valparaiso have played twice in the last 13 years and neither game was pretty for the team from the Horizon League. In 2000, Valpo received the automatic bid from the then Mid-Continental Conference and was matched up against one of the best teams Tom Izzo has ever coached. A 65-38 thrashing from the eventual National Champion sent Valpo home.
In November 2009, Valpo traveled up to Flint only to come home with a 90-60 loss. Brandon Wood was still 2 years from transferring to MSU, Ryan Broekhoff scored 3 points off the bench, and Matt Kenney only played 9 minutes. The Spartans' Derrick Nix also participated in this game, for 6 minutes and 2 points. Both of these teams have seen a lot of changes since then, but now they are paired up to play a "second round" game in Auburn Hills, Michigan on Thursday.
I won't bore you with a long complaint about the seeding Valparaiso got, but Valpo got shafted with the 14 seed. I will say I appreciate them playing the game on my birthday!
Michigan State is good, there's no doubts about that -- they are a top 10 team. But they aren't unbeatable. This will be a huge uphill battle for the turnover prone Crusaders... How can Valpo pull off a little 1998 magic? Resiliency. Patience. And a bit of luck. Here are the keys to the game for both teams.
1. Michigan State's composure and concentration.
In an interview with the Big 10 Network, Izzo said that his biggest concern was the need to stay focused. Where does this come from? A team with 8 losses all season shouldn't have problems focusing, but when you are nearly all sophomores and juniors you're going to lack veteran leadership, especially when you lose 3 senior starters from your Sweet 16 team. If Michigan State can keep their cool in front of what will be an amped up home crowd, they shouldn't have a ton of problems. But if they do that will lead to...
Both teams struggle with turnovers this season. Michigan State led the Big Ten in turnovers with 13.4 per game, and Valparaiso had 14.5 during this season. Sparty likes to get out and run with Keith Appling running the point, so a key to Valpo's defense is preventing the fast break points.
Michigan State is an outstanding rebounding team, they had a +6.8 rebound per game difference. They've struggled with rebounding in games they lost, so obviously the key is to keep them off the boards. Valpo was only a +1.0 on the boards this season, so they will need to work hard, and Broekhoff, Van Wijk and Capobianco need to show up big in the paint.
If Valpo wants to win this game, they need to play at their own pace. They struggle when they slow down the game after getting a lead, so they need to keep the pedal to the metal and go for the jugular. This doesn't mean they need to run, but they do need to get their shot off before the shot clock gets under 15. As I stated earlier Michigan State wants to get out and run, so Valpo needs to get back on defense. The Spartans have shown struggles getting back on defense, so if Valpo can control the pace Michigan State could be in for a battle.
Bryce Drew needs to get every tip he can from his father, who was one of the best in-game coaches. He's going against one of the top 5 coaches in the game. He's not experienced as a coach in the tournament, but he's got 3 appearances with Valpo as a player, most notably when he got showed up by an astronaut. That's something Tom Izzo wouldn't stand for and after 6 Final Four appearances in 13 years and 16 straight bids, he's battle tested. He knows how to get his team to advance.
This is going to come down who plays a more team oriented game. Michigan State's backcourt is great with Appling, but I believe they can be matched with Valpo's Buggs and Bogan. The frontcourt will be interesting to see how each coach matches up with the size differences. Michigan State is bigger and stronger, Valpo is quicker and has a bit more scoring. Coaching will decidedly be on Michigan State's side.