The time between Selection Sunday and the first round of the NCAA Tournament are some of the most hectic days on the sports calendars. Talking heads appear from all corners of the world to offer their bracket to the general populace. People hoping to win their office pool stay glued to their television screens, hoping to pick the one upset nobody else will. Tensions have ramped up even higher this year, with Warren Buffet offering a billion dollars to whoever can create a perfect bracket.
With all of this hoopla, it’s hard to believe that one team could be overly covered and overly scrutinized. But if you turn on ESPN or CBS, the first words out of the mouths of commentators are either Michigan State or Louisville. The two 4-seeds seem to be the most common picks to be the future champions.
Since Michigan State is one of the local Michigan teams, I figured I would compare their resume to Louisville’s, and see which 4-seed is actually more likely to cut down the nets. As a fan of the Michigan Wolverines, I promise to set aside all of my anti-Sparty bias.
Michigan State Spartans
Head Coach: Tom Izzo
Past Five Years: Sweet Sixteen, Sweet Sixteen, 1st Round, Final Four, National Runner Up
The Resume: 26-8, 12-6 in the Big Ten, BPI 11, with a 3-5 Record against Top 25 Teams
Notable Expert Picks: Jay Bilas, Dick Vitale
The Team: Like any normal Michigan State team, Izzo’s squad is incredibly balanced. The top four players include two seniors, a junior, and a sophomore. Gary Harris leads the scoring attack for the Spartans, an on-ball scorer that can take it off the dribble or shoot the 3. He has struggled from distance as of late, but it only matter of time before the sophomore finds his stroke. Like all Spartan teams, Michigan State has a dominating big man. The difference from past years is that Adreian Payne is just comfortable around the arc as he is in the paint. His inside-outside game opens the door for a lot of rebounds and second chance efforts for players like Branden Dawson, who is coming off a mid-season hand injury. Keith Appling runs the point, and has been able to cut down on his turnovers this season. Denzel Valetine rounds out the starting five, and the Spartans also get minutes from Travis Trice, Kenny Kaminski, and Matt Costello.
Their Momentum: Michigan State lost three of their final four games to end the regular season, but caught fire in the Big Ten Tournament. After easily dismantling Northwestern, the Spartans gave a dominant effort against Wisconsin. They held Wisconsin’s potent offense to below 45 percent shooting, while hitting 57 percent of their own. The game against Michigan wasn’t a pretty game for either team, but Michigan State imposed their will on the Wolverines despite poor shooting.
Their Road: Michigan State has the weakest one seed on their side of the bracket, and Virginia’s slowed down pace is not something that will be a problem for the Spartans. Before Michigan State can think about the Sweet Sixteen, they have to defeat the high scoring Delaware Hens, the champions of the Colonial Athletic Association. A common opponent for the two teams is Ohio State, with the Hens losing their game by 12 and Michigan State splitting their series with the Buckeyes. ESPN believes a Delaware win would be an upset of massive proportions, so assume the Spartans win that one. Cincinnati wouldn’t be a team to give the Spartans trouble, as grind it out defensive teams mirror the Spartans’ own game. On the bottom half of the bracket, Villanova is an interesting team. They seemingly have folded against every good team they have faced, save Kansas. I don’t see the Spartans having a problem with them. If Iowa State beats the Wildcats, I could see the Cyclones giving the Spartans trouble. If strong offensive teams are hitting shots against the Spartans, they are usually able to outscore Michigan State. Once into the Final Four, I could see Michigan State wilting against top seeded Florida. The Gators are just as experienced and hungry after getting to three straight Elite Eights. It would be too much to predict who wins the other side of the bracket, but I definitely think the Spartans could get to the Final Four.
Head Coach: Rick Pitino
Past Five Years: NCAA Champions, Final Four, First Round, First Round, Elite Eight
The Resume: 29-5, 15-3 in the American Athletic Conference, BPI 4, with a 4-3 record against Top 25 teams
Notable Expert Picks: Dennis Dodd, Eddie Timanus
The Team: Last year’s champions are without guard Peyton Siva, and forwards Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanan. However, the team retained high-usage guard Russ Smith and Most Outstanding Player of the last year’s tournament Luke Hancock. Picking up the slack for the departed, Montrezl Harrell and Chris Jones have been among main contributors for the Cardinals. The Cardinals are a high scoring outfit, putting up 82 points a game. The scoring is fairly balanced as well. Russ Smith leads with 18 points a game, but Louisville has seven players scoring 7 points a game or better. The Cardinals ripped through their first year in the American Athletic Conference, only losing to Memphis and Cincinnati. Rick Pitino is very confident in his team, and felt they should have been given a one seed. He anointed two of his players, Russ Smith and Montrezl Harrell, as the best guard and forward in the nation.
Their Momentum: The Cardinals have won five in a row, with three of those coming in the American Athletic Conference Tournament. Before the five wins came their second loss to Memphis, as the Tigers seemingly had Louisville’s number. The Cardinals were 9-1 to finish the season, and the only games that were close were Memphis and Cincinnati.
Their Road: Louisville faces Manhattan in their first round, and only 3 percent of people are picking the Jaspers to win. Steve Masiello is the head coach of the Jaspers, a former player and coach for Pitino. His mentor will most likely send him packing. From there, Louisville faces Saint Louis or NC State. Saint Louis is a defensive oriented team that occasionally struggles on the other side of the court, and NC State is a one-man show with TJ Warren leading the way. I think the Cardinals have enough firepower to get past either, and that brings up a Final Four rematch. Both Wichita State and Louisville lost key pieces from last year, but retain their main scorers. I think this could be one potential end of the line for Louisville, as the Shockers know they can play with the Cardinals, and they have the confidence that comes with not losing a game. If the Cardinals make it past the Shockers, they will likely have to face Duke or Michigan. Michigan, like Wichita State, has shown that they can break Louisville’s press and can match the Cardinals. Duke is another high-efficiency offensive team that could match Louisville. If the Cardinals manage to escape the Midwest bracket, I don’t see any teams from the West giving them too much trouble. I think they could beat Wisconsin, and I think they would figure out Arizona’s defense. Creighton might be able to spread out the Cardinals and shoot their way to a victory, but I don’t think they get out of the Midwest.
The Verdict: I think Louisville is the better team, but that doesn’t always mean they’ll be more likely to get to the Final Four. I like Michigan State’s matchups, and I think they will be more likely than Louisville to reach the Final Four or the title game.