Two teams, meeting in St. Louis for the Sweet 16, are walking definitions of winning through adversity.
The No. 5-seed MSU men’s basketball team, with three players (junior guards Chris Allen and Kalin Lucas and sophomore forward Delvon Roe) suffering leg injuries, are hurting. No. 9-seed Northern Iowa battled its way to an upset of No. 1 overall seed Kansas, an easy pick for a national title winner.
Now, both squads are playing for a trip to the Midwest Regional finals Sunday.
Here is a breakdown of Friday’s matchup.
The biggest storyline of the game is Lucas’ absence. As MSU’s point guard, co-captain and leading scorer, MSU head coach Tom Izzo calls Lucas “the straw that stirs the drink.” But if Allen can’t go (Izzo called him “hour-to-hour”) because of a sprain in the arch of his right foot, the Spartans also lose arguably their best perimeter defender. It’s a good thing junior guard Durrell Summers seems to always emerge in March, scoring in double figures in five straight NCAA Tournament games. Someone’s gotta defend all those Northern Iowa shooters.
The job center Jordan Eglseder did on Kansas’ Cole Aldrich might have been the deciding factor in the Panthers’ upset win. The Spartans have to count on Roe to give a good first half and, as his knee tightens at the break, whatever they get in the second 20 minutes is a bonus. Expect freshman centers Derrick Nix, who saw major minutes against Maryland, and Garrick Sherman to spend a lot of time under the basket. And while sophomore forward Draymond Green has showed the ability to step out, Izzo needs him in the paint more than ever.
For the first time this season, the Spartans might be coming up against a team with depth rivaling the Green and White’s. Spartan reserves average 24.8 points per game and Izzo routinely has been rotating 11 guys, even in crucial contests and at peak moments. The Panthers, meanwhile, have nine players who log more than 11 minutes per game (and six who average more than 20). Although Northern Iowa’s talent doesn’t run as deep as the Spartans’, they can go body for body.
No modern coach is on Izzo’s level when it comes to March and NCAA Tournament basketball. Northern Iowa head coach Ben Jacobson has done an admirable job in four seasons with the Panthers, leading them to their first Sweet 16. But Izzo’s 33-11 mark in March Madness, coupled with his incredible track record in the short turnaround weekends of the tournament, is remarkable.
The Panthers have nothing to lose. They’ve already beaten the best team in the tournament and are the darlings of this year’s dance. If they lose, they’ll get a pat on the back, and if they win, everyone will be rooting for more. Although the Spartans are playing through plenty of obstacles, the nation is rooting for the underdog: Northern Iowa.
Advantage: Northern Iowa
Prediction: MSU 68, Northern Iowa 63