It wouldn’t be fair to Tom Izzo to call Michigan State’s run to the Sweet 16 unlikely. Really, it is business as usual for the Spartans’ head coach.
But for this Michigan State team — a team that started January with five losses and entered the Big Ten tournament with 10 — unlikely seems like a fair word. This Spartans team wasn’t supposed to be a Sweet 16 team, yet here they are, two wins away from Izzo’s seventh career Final Four.
The Spartans made it this far thanks to a balanced offensive attack that features a new star every night and the typical pressure Spartan defense we’ve grown accustomed to under Izzo.
Sooners coach, Lon Kruger, is no stranger to Izzo as the two coached against one another in the Big Ten when Kruger was leading Illinois from 1996-2000. Kruger went just 3-6 against Izzo then.
Each team that Kruger has lead has had one glaring trait, defense. The Sooners play lock down defense and rank sixth nationally in defensive efficiency. Oklahoma may lack quality depth, but that doesn’t stop the Sooners from getting out and running, grabbing defensive rebounds, and scoring in bunches in transition.
Other Sweet 16 Previews
No. 7 Michigan State vs. No. 3 Oklahoma
Region: East (Syracuse, N.Y.)
Time: Friday, approx. 10:07 p.m. ET
Announcers: Verne Lundquist and Jim Spanarkel
Line: Michigan State by 2
Matchup to Watch: Michigan State’s Denzel Valentine vs. Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield
Junior Spartan swingman Denzel Valentine is one of the Big Ten’s most versatile players. Valentine is second on his team in points, assists and rebounds and is the best perimeter defender Tom Izzo has. Valentine will not only have to score, dish and rebound if Sparty wants to keep dancing but also shut down the Big 12’s leading scorer in sharpshooter Buddy Hield. The Sooners go as Hield goes, and Hield goes fast — unafraid to pull the trigger from anywhere inside of half court.
Tournament Surprise: Oklahoma’s Frank Booker
Teams can never have enough 3-point shooters in the NCAA Tournament, and Oklahoma found one in Frank Booker. He had two 3s in his last four games of the regular season, but he has gone 6-of-12 from 3 in two Tournament games. He scored 8 points against Albany and 12 against Dayton.
Michigan State will win if...
Valentine has to find his offensive flow against a stout Sooners’ defense. In the past four games, Denzel Valentine has scored four or less points twice as the Spartans have failed to top 70 points in all four games. In order for Sparty to win, Valentine won’t have to go for 25, but he will need to score close to his season average of 14 points per game against the Sooners’ sixth-ranked defense. Valentine is fantastic in transition and should be able to drive to the bucket and shoot well from the perimeter within the flow of the fast-paced game.
Oklahoma will win if...
Michigan State and its balanced scoring attack will be able to run with Oklahoma in the Sooners’ fast-paced attack. The Sooners are poor at limiting opposing offenses to just one shot, so curbing extra Spartan possessions will be crucial for Oklahoma’s success. In order to shut down Michigan State, Lon Kruger will have to throw multiple defensive looks to slow Spartan point guard Travis Trice. Trice, who lit up Virginia’s second-ranked defense for 23 points in the Round of 32 last weekend, is the engine that propels this steady and dangerous Spartan offense.
Athlon Staff Predictions
David Fox: Michigan State 65-60
Braden Gall: Oklahoma 70-65
Mitch Light: Oklahoma 66-64
Jake Rose: Michigan State 68-61
-By Jake Rose