Braves make their first Big Dance appearance since 2006 against the Big Ten champs
For the 22nd consecutive season, Tom Izzo has taken his Michigan State Spartans to the NCAA Tournament, where they will open up against the Bradley Braves on Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa. The Spartans (28-6) are regular participants in March Madness and Izzo has quite the list of accomplishments in college basketball's biggest event. Now in his 24th season at Michigan State, Izzo has one national championship (2000) and seven Final Four appearances on his resume. The most recent of those came in 2015 so Izzo and the Spartans hope they have another deep postseason run in them.
Up first for the No. 2 seed in the East Region is Bradley. The Braves (20-14) got into the NCAA Tournament by winning the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament and are making their first appearance in the Big Dance since 2006. Bradley finished the regular season 9-9 in conference play but put it all together during Arch Madness in St. Louis, beating Missouri State, regular-season champ Loyola-Chicago, and Northern Iowa to win the MVC Tournament.
Michigan State has been its usual impressive self, going 16-4 in the Big Ten and claiming a share of the regular-season title with Purdue. The Spartans then beat Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Michigan to win their ninth Big Ten Conference Tournament, making it the first time since 2012 they had won both the regular-season title and the tournament in the same season.
Michigan State clearly has the experience advantage in this matchup, as Izzo is 48-20 in NCAA Tournament games while Bradley's Brian Wardle will be making his first appearance as a head coach. But the Braves have already beaten a Big Ten team this year, knocking off Penn State back in November, and the last time they were in the NCAA Tournament (2006), they made it to the Sweet 16 as a No. 13 seed.
East Region: No. 15 Bradley Braves (20-14) vs. No. 2 Michigan State Spartans (28-6)
Time: Approximately 2:45 p.m. ET (Thursday)
Where: Wells Fargo Arena (Des Moines, Iowa)
Keys for Bradley
Michigan State may have a better reputation, but Bradley can play some defense of its own. The Braves enter this game ranked 33rd nationally at 65 points per game allowed with the Spartans just a little further down the list (65.5, 38th). Bradley has actually held teams to below that average in nearly half of its games (15), including all three during its Missouri Valley Conference Tournament run.
On offense, the Braves are led by guard Darrell Brown (14.7 ppg, 3.1 apg), 3-point specialist Nate Kennell (40 percent), and forward Elijah Childs (12.2 ppg, 7.8 rpg). These three will certainly have to be at their best to have any chance of pulling off the upset. The challenge for Bradley will be to find a way to limit Michigan State's offensive opportunities while creating enough of their own.
Keys for Michigan State
Michigan State is one of the better defensive teams in the nation, certainly when you factor in the quality of competition they have faced this season. The Spartans have size and athleticism, two things they use effectively on both sides of the floor. Michigan State is not only one of the better rebounding teams in the nation (+9.0 margin, fourth), the team also is fourth in blocks (5.5 per game). It's little surprise that the Spartans enter this game 12th in the country in scoring margin (13.8 ppg).
Guards Cassius Winston (18.9 ppg, 7.6 apg), Joshua Langford (15.0 ppg, 2.3 apg), and forward Nick Ward (14.0 ppg, 59 percent shooter) are the main cogs to Michigan State's offense while forwards Kenny Goins (8.9 rpg, 1.3 bpg) and Xavier Tillman (7.1 rpg, 1.7 bpg) usually make their presence known on defense. The Spartans' game plan is simple: stick to what has worked so well to get them to this point.
This could be an entertaining game to watch as I don't expect Bradley to not put up a fight, but overcoming Michigan State's talent will be easier said than done. It will be a closer score than many expect with the Braves leaving a good impression, but the Spartans will move on without too much resistance.
Prediction: Michigan State 66, Bradley 59
— Gabe Salgado is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. He's also written for NBC, Fox, The Sporting News, The Sports Journal, The Undefeated and Complex. He's a co-host of The Rewind Sports: 60. Follow him on Twitter @GabeSalgado82.