Tigers and Spartans clash in Washington D.C. with Elite Eight berth on the line
Four teams enter the nation's capital fresh off a pair of NCAA Tournament wins. They haven't all been pretty, they haven't all been blowouts. But they've been wins, and in a time appropriately dubbed as "madness," wins are simply the most important commodity to collect.
LSU makes its 10th appearance in the Sweet 16 and first since 2006. It has been a topsy-turvy ride for the third-seeded Tigers — who lost in the quarterfinals of the SEC Tournament to Florida — and have squeaked by in their first two NCAA Tournament wins by a combined seven points. Despite nearly blowing a double-digit lead to No. 6 Maryland, LSU pulled out the 69-67 win thanks to four players scoring in double figures, led by Skylar Mays' 16 and Naz Reid's 13.
In order to reach their first Elite Eight since 2006, the Tigers will have to contend with Michigan State, the Big Ten’s regular-season and tournament champion. The Spartans received a scare from No. 15 Bradley in the opening round, but they dispatched fellow Big Ten foe (and No. 10) Minnesota by 20 points in the Round of 32. The Spartans dominated the Gophers in most areas — including shooting 57 percent from the field (compared to Minnesota’s 30.5) and outrebounding them 45-19.
However, MSU committed 22 turnovers, its second-highest single-game total and just the third game this season with at least 20. If the Spartans want to make the most of their first Sweet 16 trip since 2015 (when the program also reached the Final Four), they will need to clean up that part of their game.
The two point guards squaring off might be some of the smallest players on the court, but they carry the biggest impact into this game. LSU's Tremont Waters (5-11) led the SEC (and is third in Division I) with 2.97 steals per game, as the Tigers are a top-10 team in that category. On the other side, Michigan State's Cassius Winston (6-1) is one of the best distributors in the sport. He's dished out 7.5 assists per game — which tops the Big Ten and ranks third in Division I — and only Murray State standout Ja Morant (331 total assists this season) has more than Winston's 271.
East Region: No. 3 LSU Tigers (28-6) vs. No. 2 Michigan State Spartans (30-6)
Time: 7:09 p.m. ET (Friday)
Where: Capital One Arena (Washington, D.C.)
Keys for LSU
The Tigers have thrived off of their ability to take the ball away, registering nine steals per game (8.7), to spur their prolific offense. LSU is averaging 81.3 points per game, which makes them a top-25 team in that respect as well. Waters may pace the team with three steals per game but fellow guard Mays is not too far behind him with 1.88 per contest. Those two will look to create some havoc as well as some easy buckets on Friday night.
In addition, the Tigers will give themselves a strong chance to win if they can win the battle on the glass. In Kavell Bigby-Williams, Emmitt Williams, and Reid, LSU possesses three of the SEC's top 11 in offensive rebounding, as the trio combines for more than eight offensive boards per game.
Keys for Michigan State
It would not be a huge overstatement to say that this is one of Tom Izzo's best teams in recent memory. That's why I'll say it: this is one of Tom Izzo's best teams in recent memory. The Spartans lead the Big Ten — and rank among the top five nationally — in assists (18.6, third in Division I), blocks (5.4, fifth), and defensive rebounds (30.14, third) per game as well as field-goal percentage defense (37.7).
While Winston — who leads the team in minutes and is one of two Spartans to start every game this season — is the engine that makes this team go, he has a paint presence that helps make Michigan State a well-rounded team. Xavier Tillman, Kenny Goins, and Nick Ward are sixth, ninth and 12th in the Big Ten in blocks (combining for nearly 4.3 per game), while Goins and Tillman have tallied six and five double-doubles, respectively. Ward, meanwhile, is a 59.1 percent shooter from the field, the second-best clip in the conference and among the top 30 nationally.
If the winner of the point guard matchup of Waters and Winston doesn't deliver a clear result of the game, look to the rebounding margin that could very well decide it. With a trip to the Elite Eight on the line, which strength shines through more prominently: LSU's aggressive defense that leads to transition offense, or Michigan State's balance and veteran leadership?
Prediction: Michigan State 78, LSU 70
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and currently a senior at the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and works for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.