Column: During down year, MSU hoops still should be feared in March

By Brady McAtamney | 2/22/17 9:59pm

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Grant Halverson/Getty Images

by Grant Halverson/Getty Images / Grand Valley Lanthorn

After an arduous and disappointing football season in East Lansing in 2016, spirits were down in the hearts of Michigan State Spartans and their fans across the nation. A program that had grown so accustomed to winning had looked more and more like their past selves with every passing week and it resulted in an uncharacteristic missed bowl game from coach Mark Dantonio and the boys.

But, there was a silver lining: it was finally basketball season. Thanks to the likes of Magic Johnson, Mateen Cleaves, Drew Neitzel, Draymond Green and Denzel Valentine, MSU has always held its head high on the court and is well regarded as one of the top programs year after year.

So when the Spartans went down in a shocker last March to the No. 15 seeded Middle Tennessee State Blue Raiders, the world knew that they would come back the next year with a burning passion to win, win, win. Top two scorers Denzel Valentine and Bryn Forbes left the team to graduation, but the rest of the team remained intact, at least until junior forwards Marvin Jones Jr. and Javon Bess declared that they would be transferring. Alas, the Spartans still had weapons. But then coveted freshman center Deyonta Davis declared that he would be the first one-and-done under head coach Tom Izzo since Zach Randolph and the roster grew thinner.

Suddenly, four rays of light shone from the basketball heavens and down descended four freshmen, all consensus top 100 recruits in the country, headlined by athletic freak of nature Miles Bridges. He was joined by guards Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford, cousin of former Spartan running back and current Chicago Bear Jeremy Langford, and big man Nick Ward. Joining them was graduate transfer from UNLV, center Ben Carter, and the boys were back in town.

The bright outlook would not last long, as before the season even began, Carter and fellow senior big man Gavin Schilling each suffered season ending injuries, leaving Ward as the sole player on the team at 6’8" or taller.

The regular season began with a thud as the Spartans dropped their first two games to the No. 10 ranked Arizona Wildcats and the No. 2 ranked Kentucky Wildcats and eventually fell to two other ranked opponents, Duke and Baylor, all while traveling thousands of miles across the country.

Top ranked opponents, several spread out pit stops and an uncharacteristically young team tends to be a recipe for disaster, and it was in this case as the Spartans quickly plummeted out of the AP Top 25 and it has yet to find its way back in.

They beat the bad teams and lost to the good ones all the way up to their home game against Northeastern where they lost by a score of 81-73, albeit during the several week stretch where even the spectacular Bridges was hurt. The team’s struggles hit their peak when they dropped four of six in Big Ten play to Ohio State, Indiana, Purdue (at home) and Michigan (by 29). Then, a week and a half after the blowout in Ann Arbor, senior guard Eron Harris lands awkwardly on his right knee against Purdue in East Lafayette, a game they lost, and is now out for the season. If you’re keeping track, that is three of the Spartans’ four scholarship seniors who are not out for the year.

Now holding a 16-11 (8-6 B1G) record and only four games remaining, the Spartans are in danger of missing their first NCAA tournament in a long time.

What if I told you that if MSU managed to squeak into March Madness, they very well could make a run at the Final Four?

Before we even get to that, they will have to come away with at least two more wins, though I think they can get three. They get Nebraska and No. 16 Wisconsin at home (which I see as wins) and Illinois and No. 24 Maryland on the road (one of which should be a win). After that is the Big Ten tournament, where three wins gets them a double bye while two wins gets them a first round bye and a second round matchup against a conference bottom feeder, which would just about be another win anyways.

This is where things get fun. At this point we’ve learned to never count out Izzo (unless they’re playing MTSU) and this is a bona fide Izzo-run team: chock-full with young talent that has not yet hit its hot streak.

Think about it this way: Miles Bridges is Miles Bridges. He will go out nineteen games out of twenty and give you a star performance. Ward has been developing in the post and is getting more and more comfortable each day. Winston has begun making the impossible guard plays look possible and is focused on toning down mistakes. Alvin Ellis III, the lone remaining senior, has begun to get red hot from the arc, hitting 8-14 attempts from downtown in the team’s last two games. Joshua Langford is finally putting it together and has found the confidence he needs to make an impact for the Spartans.

It deserves to be said again: this is an Izzo-led team. He took a No. 7-seeded squad led by Travis Trice to the Final Four in 2015, and there are at least three guys on this team who can do as much if not more than Trice did in that tournament this year.

If this team is able to put it together in time, the Spartans will come back for revenge for last year and this season and will prove all of their doubters wrong with a string of wins all the way into Phoenix.

Let me say it one more time in case I wasn’t clear: Never count out Tournament Tom.

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