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Saturday, August 30, 2014 | Last updated: 12:54am


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Great Expectations


The road to the Sweet Sixteen hasn't been easy for the Spartans




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Freshman forward Gavin Schilling rejoices with his team for their Big Ten Championship win March 16, 2014, after the game against Michigan at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. The Spartans defeated the Wolverines, 69-55. Erin Hampton/The State News



They all predicted the Spartans would be NCAA champions.

Heading into the Sweet Sixteen, MSU will face No. 1 seed Virginia at about 10 p.m. on Friday in New York.

No victory is certain in this year’s NCAA Tournament.

The madness began early in the tourney with seven upsets in the first round. MSU escaped an early upset, beating Delaware handily in their first game.

Among the upsets were No. 12 seed Stephen F. Austin beating fifth-seed VCU, sixth-seed Ohio State losing to No. 11 seed Dayton, and No. 12 seed North Dakota State beating fifth-seed Oklahoma.

An upset that surprised many basketball fans was third-seed Duke loss to No. 14 seed Mercer, who appeared in the tournament for the first time since 1985.

After beating Delaware by 15 in the team’s tournament-opening game, MSU played No. 12 seed Harvard — who upset No.5 seed Cincinnati, 61-57 — and had a bit of a setback when the Crimson caught up to them in the middle of the second half.

MSU pushed through to win, 80-73.

Ranked second in the nation in the beginning of the season, the team has had their ups and downs, but played with determination to reach the pivotal round of 16.

“I’m really happy with how they’re playing now. I was worried in the beginning — they went through a rough patch with all the injuries — but I’m really excited,” said Marie Siegel, an international relations and German freshman.

Junior guard/forward Branden Dawson was one such player plagued by injury. He was out for about five weeks with a broken hand, sustained when he hit a table in frustration. He eventually underwent surgery.

“If anyone rips (Dawson), anybody rips BJ, it’ll be me. If any other fan rips BJ on something that we’ve all done, every guy in this room, every fan, I’m going to be more disappointed,” head coach Tom Izzo said in January. “If Michigan fans rip him, God bless ‘em. If one Michigan State fan rips him — one, one — give ‘em my number.”

A healthy Dawson came back strong and was voted the Big Ten Championship MVP following the Spartans’ 69-55 win against rival U-M.

Even with persistent injuries and illness affecting key players, fans said they believe the team still had a great season.

“There’s been a decent amount of upsets (this year) but our season’s been phenomenal so far, and we’re peaking at a perfect time,” biochemistry senior Matt Smith said.

Senior Adreian Payne scored a career-high 41 points against Delaware to open the tournament run — making all 17 free throws and four of five 3-pointers.

After thinking about leaving to play in the NBA last year, Payne told ESPN that he wanted to “leave a legacy.”

A legacy within reach..

“I’m so happy he came back to play, be a senior and graduate,” Siegel said. “I hope he keeps this up in the next games.”

Despite struggling in some parts of both rounds, President Barack Obama picked the Spartans to win it all and eventually defeat No. 4 seed Louisville, who is also in the Sweet Sixteen.

Although three of Obama’s Elite Eight picks have been sent home — Kansas, Duke and Villanova — all of his Final Four teams are still alive.

“I know these are not imaginative picks, but I think they’re the right ones,” Obama told ESPN’s Andy Katz before the tournament started.

Like Obama, sportscaster Dick Vitale picked Florida, MSU, Louisville and Arizona to appear in the Final Four, and he picked the Spartans to win it all. ESPN basketball analyst Jay Bilas also picked MSU as the tournament victors.

And it’s not just world leaders and sports reporters who believe in the Spartans — MSU students are showing faith and pride in their school.

“They’re in my bracket to win like anyone else — they’ve proven them right so far. It’s cool to get national attention,” Siegel said. “I hope they play as well, but I know the games get harder.”

Others, like computer science sophomore Michael Scott, think MSU will end up playing their in-state rival in the final game.

“We’ll beat Virginia and go to the Final Four,” Scott said. “I think we’ll go all the way and wind up playing Michigan. It would be awesome if we played Michigan for the championship.”

Media and information senior Alex Bergmans disagreed with the popular championship pick of MSU.

“I figured most people would pick MSU. I’m relieved that my bracket’s destroyed, so now I can just root for MSU,” Bergmans said. “We definitely might go to the Final Four. I’m not sure about the whole championship, but I think we’ll win our region.”

State News reporter Emily Jenks contributed to this report.


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