Middle Tennessee State had reason to celebrate after winning the Conference USA Championship. The Blue Raiders were off to the big dance and was hoping to keep their dancing shoes on for a bit. However, after the NCAA bracket was released, MTSU couldn't have heard worst news about their placement, looking across at possibly the angriest team in the 68-team field, Michigan State.
The Spartans were ranked No. 2 in the final AP Top 25 poll, but was given a two-seed in this year's tournament, offering even more motivation to an already dangerous team. When the chips are on the table in March and Tom Izzo is in the game, my bet is on the men in green. Izzo has a knack for winning in Marchâand Aprilâand this could be the year the Spartans make another Final Four run.
Both teams enter the contest hotter than a tin roof on a summer day in the desert. Michigan State has won nine in a row and 13 of its last 14. The Spartans only falter along the stretch was an 82-81 overtime loss at Purdue. Other than a three-game losing streak in the middle of the season, MSU has been arguably one of the toughest teams in the nation. Likewise, MTSU closed its season winning six in a row after falling in back-to-back games to UAB and Western Kentucky at home.
While there's always talk of the 15-2 upset, this was not the game to take in your bracket. MSU shoots the ball extremely well from virtually anywhere on the court and holds its opponents to a 30 percent clip from beyond the arc. This could be paramount for MTSU if it has any plans on creating havoc in the opening round.
Giddy Potts and Reggie Upshaw lead the Blue Raiders and both must have a career outing to secure a win over the Spartans. Potts averages 15 points a game and has been instrumental in the Raiders run to close the season after missing the final regular season game against Marshall with a concussion. Likewise, Upshaw nearly posts a double-double each night, with 14 points and nine boards, and unlike most post players, can step outside and stroke the long range jumper. Upshaw has hit only 24 treys this season, but shoots 37.5 percent from that mark. His ability to stretch the Spartans' defense is critical for the Raiders to complete the upset.
Perrin Buford and Darnell Harris round out the Blue Raiders' leaders, as both average double-figures per contest. However, the well runs dry once MTSU turns to its bench, with no player averaging more than five points a night while averaging over 15 minutes in relief.
Denzel Valentine paces the Spartans' attack with 19.4 per outing while shooting nearly 50 percent from the field, including 44.7 percent from long range. Bryn Forbes and Matt Costello, averaging 14.4 and 10.4 points respectively, complement Valentine and Izzo's bench runs five deep, with Lourawls Nairn, Jr. seeing 19 minutes of action a night.
This game comes down to MTSU's ability to hold MSU to one shot while limiting the number of empty possessions it has throughout the game. The war on the glass will be big as well, with one team owning a significant edge of the other.
The Spartans own a plus-5 advantage on the glass over the Blue Raiders and have outrebounded their opponents by an average of 12 a night, making this stat the deciding factor in the game. Upshaw will likely battle Costello down low, with the winner providing their team a significant edge.
MTSU certainly has the offensive ability to play with the Spartans, but for how long is the question. Expect to see many different defensive schemes from the Raiders, including several different zone looks in an attempt to limit the Spartans looks from beyond the arc.
This should be an entertaining contest through the opening half, but the Spartans are much too tough for the Raiders to dispatch.
PREDICTION: Michigan State 83 Middle TN: 71