The goal for second-seeded Michigan State is clear as it heads to Des Moines, Iowa, this weekend for the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
However, it’s a goal the Spartans (28-6) haven’t accomplished since the 2014-15 season, when they reached the Final Four as a No. 7 seed. Despite entering the tournament with the momentum of Big Ten regular season and tournament championships, the task at hand is to “survive the weekend.”
And that hasn’t been easy for MSU in recent years: a historic upset to No. 15 Middle Tennessee in the opening game of March Madness after winning the conference tournament in 2016, a forgettable second-round bounce by Kansas the season after that and another improbable exit in the second round to Syracuse last March despite two NBA lottery picks on the Spartans’ roster.
“The only thing we’re focused on is winning this weekend and we’re going to focus on it Thursday, (and) hopefully Saturday,” coach Tom Izzo said at a news conference Monday. “We’ll come home with another set of goals.”
The Spartans’ first-round opponent this go-around is No. 15 Bradley (20-14), winners of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament. Bradley finished sixth in the conference but put together close wins against Missouri State, Loyola-Chicago — which made the Final Four last season before losing to Michigan — and Northern Iowa in three straight days to punch a ticket to the Big Dance.
What stood out to Izzo most about Bradley, who also beat Penn State in November, were Darrell Brown, Elijah Childs and Nate Kennell, Bradley’s top-three leading scorers. Brown — the team’s leading scorer at 14.7 points per game — and Kennell (9.4 ppg) are Bradley’s leading shooters from 3-point range, hitting 43.9 and 40.3 percent, respectively. Childs (12.2 ppg) leads Bradley in rebounding, averaging 7.8.
Izzo went as far to compare Brown to former MSU great Mateen Cleaves. But he also thinks MSU will be plenty ready for Thursday’s tipoff (2:45 p.m. EST/CBS).
“Darrell Brown is a strong, Mateen looking-like guard who can really shoot it from long range,” Izzo said. “Nate Kanell also shoots it any time in the building, and a forward named Childs who I think is long, athletic, 6-foot-7 and can do a lot of things, has a great mid-range game. ... It’s never easy in this tournament and you worry about every single game, but I think at least in a short period of time we’ll be very prepared for Bradley.”
Sophomore forward Xavier Tillman remembers last season’s loss to Syracuse in Detroit. The Spartans were held scoreless the final 3:33 while the Orange went on a 7-0 run to seal the game.
Tillman, who’s started the last eight games, said he’s excited for another chance to make a deep run.
“We have expectations for ourselves as far as making a deep run, but you can’t make a deep run if you lose in the first weekend,” Tillman said after practice. “So our goal is to win the first game, win the second game, then move on.”
Izzo said he finds significance in MSU’s accolades before the start of the tournament even the Las Vegas Invitational tournament win during Thanksgiving weekend. He noted how tangible assets can make postseason goals clearer in March.
And given on-the-court adversity — season-ending injuries to juniors Joshua Langford (foot) and Kyle Ahrens (ankle) — Izzo said the team has exceeded his own expectations coming into the postseason.
“(My) motivation is for this team to accomplish what I think this team can accomplish,” Izzo said. “And I’ll be honest with you: beginning of the year, I did not think this team would be where we’re standing. I thought we could be a very good team. I didn’t think we could be an elite team that won three championships.”
But after two conference titles, junior point guard Cassius Winston said he thinks the team has learned to win in all types of scenarios.
“We know what it takes to win and we’re just going to stick to what we do,” Winston — the consensus Big Ten Player of the Year and conference tournament MVP — said. “We know what we’ve been doing all year and it’s been successful for us all year, so we’re going to stick to that.”
According to fifth-year senior Kenny Goins — who was redshirted the year of MSU’s last Final Four run — the key to surviving Bradley and accomplishing the team’s goals is to take things slowly.
“We think we have a really good chance to win a couple games here in the first weekend and hopefully more after that,” Goins said. “We’re not looking past anyone. We’ve got to take care of this first game.”
Goins said if the team’s primary goals are met, he’s certain bigger things will come.
“Well, we were a No. 2 seed and a lost to a No. 15, so I’ve been on both sides of it,” Goins said. “A Big Ten Championship, tournament championship is great, but a Final Four outlives that by three times. It’s so much higher than a Big Ten championship. It’s not that we haven’t done a lot this year, it’s just a whole different stage, a whole different pedestal.”