Championship Or Bust: Michigan State Spartans

By Emily Van Buskirk / @Emilnem & Josh Naso / @silverfox8008

National championships are hard to come by, and just because you are ranked at the top doesn’t mean somebody from the bottom won’t knock you off on the road to Houston. It’s true that the stronger your ranking, the smoother your path to success, but not everybody has an airtight case. That is where we come in.

In honor of the beginning of the arguably the best month in sports, we at TSFJ have decided to celebrate the calm before the madness by breaking down each of the AP Top 5 teams. Will they make a national title run or not? Let’s figure out your bracket together.

Next up: The No. 2 ranked Michigan State Spartans

Why They Will Win It All

Two words: Tom Izzo. Izzo’s emphasis on guard play, rebounding and toughness always has the Spartans in position to compete in March. Under Izzo, Michigan State plays notoriously difficult non-conference schedules, allowing the Spartans to be undaunted under the bright lights and intensity of the tournament. This season is no different, as they have played (and beaten) Kansas, Providence and Louisville, in addition to the rigors of their Big Ten schedule.

In Izzo’s 21 seasons as the head coach at Michigan State, we have learned to never overlook the Spartans come tournament time. Regardless of seed, opponents know Michigan State will be a tough out and will not be pleased to find themselves sharing a bracket with the Spartans. Michigan State has been to six Final Fours under Izzo, and a seventh trip could certainly be in the cards this year.

While Izzo’s track record is reason enough to never count out Sparty, a look at this year’s roster shows some very scary prospects for whomever ends up in a region with Michigan State. Izzo's squad is led by a trio of seniors, something that is nearly unheard of in this era of college basketball.

Leading the way is do-everything guard Denzel Valentine. Valentine is averaging 19.3 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game. As good as those numbers are, they don’t tell the whole story on Valentine. He nearly always makes the right play, and his experience and knowledge show through as he plays.

While Valentine grabs the headlines, and deservedly so, he gets plenty of help from fellow seniors Matt Costello and Bryn Forbes. Costello is averaging 10.3 points and 8.5 rebounds, and Forbes chips in 15.2 points per game while shooting over 51 percent from behind the arc.

Valentine and Costello went to the Sweet 16 as freshmen, the Elite 8 as sophomores and were joined last year by Forbes for a run to the Final Four. With their talent, experience and leadership, and under the tutelage of Izzo, they look poised to continue the progression and dance all the way to a national championship.

Why They Won’t Win It All

Two words: Free throws. Michigan State shoots 72 percent from the charity stripe, ranking sixth in the Big Ten. Now, most you are probably saying to yourself, "Hey, that’s pretty good," especially if you are playing in the Pac-12, but shooting closer to the high 70s or low 80s is what you want when it comes to the Big Dance. Free throws, like rebounding, are one of the major keys to success in the NCAA Tournament. They can be the difference between marching on to Houston or getting left behind in Spokane.

Another reason Michigan State might falter is the same exact reason used in the above argument for winning it all: Denzel Valentine. The Spartans' offense is predicated on the star senior guard running the show. He leads the team in points, scoring average, field goal attempts, field goals made, free throw percentage, free throws made, assists, steals, defensive rebounds and minutes played.

Yes, he does it all for his team, but stretching him too thin across that many games may prove to be Sparty’s downfall, especially given the inconsistency of his backup, Eron Harris. The transfer from West Virginia had a rough start when asked to step in during Valentine’s injury, struggling with the man-to-man defensive system Izzo utilizes and finding it difficult to score consistently.

There is no doubt in Izzo’s ability to find ways to win on the court, even in unlikely situations, but he can’t diagram his way around fatigue.

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