Yes, we don’t have March madness, but because of great minds like Joe Lunardi at ESPN, we can have a glimpse at what the bracket might have looked like. In the latest State News series, we analyze and project what the NCAA tournament might have looked like round by round, region by region.
NCAA Tournament projection: South Region Elite Eight
Here is our projection of the South Region Elite Eight:
#1 Baylor vs. #3 Michigan State
Preview: The Spartans find themselves right back where they were a year ago, except this time they won’t be going up against a team that features three future top-ten NBA draft picks. Still, the Baylor Bears pose just as much of a threat to this MSU squad.
Michigan State fans remember all too well the Kenny Goins three that sealed the deal in last year’s Elite Eight win over Duke to punch a ticket to the Final Four. However, Baylor hasn’t made it that far in the tournament since 1950, and the Spartans are now the last team standing in their way of breaking the 70 year curse.
The game will feature a player named to the Associated Press All-America team on both sides, as MSU’s Cassius Winston (2nd team) and Baylor’s Jared Butler (3rd team) received honors this past March.
We know the stars will come to play, as they have been all tournament. What this game will ultimately come down to is how impactful the contributions will be from the supporting cast. Specifically for MSU, I’m looking at Gabe Brown and Aaron Henry, two guys who regressed a bit in their second year.
For Baylor, guys like Mark Vital and Devonte Bandoo will need to step up. Vital doesn’t bring much to the table offensively, as he only averaged 6.1 PPG and shot 11.8% from three this season. However, he led the Bears in averaging just under two steals per game, and could be the defensive spark coach Scott Drew needs to disrupt the Spartan’s offense.
Either way it goes, this is a game you can expect to go down to the wire.
The Game: Fans pile into the Toyota Center in Houston, Texas, for the highly anticipated matchup of heavyweights. Houston Rockets' star James Harden and Houston rapper Travis Scott are seen sitting court side.
The opening tip is won by Xavier Tillman Sr. and Winston takes the ball up, eventually finding Henry for an open corner three. The Spartans start off hot, rattling off a 16-4 run to start the game. Drew calls a timeout and gives his team a passionate pep talk, reminding them of how good they are and that they’re meant to be here.
The Bears respond coming out of the timeout, and Butler takes over in the first half as his team slowly chips away at MSU’s lead. Finishing with 17 points in the first half, Butler propels Baylor to a 38-37 lead after 20 minutes of play.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is visibly frustrated heading into the locker room, as his team committed seven turnovers in the first half, washing away their early lead.
The first ten minutes of the second half are fairly even, with both teams struggling to pull away. With 9:47 remaining in the game, MSU suffers a devastating blow. Going up for a rebound, Tillman lands on his left foot awkwardly and tweaks his ankle. He tries to walk it off, but has to go back to the locker room to be further evaluated.
Izzo calls upon Marcus Bingham Jr. and he plays well in Tillman’s absence, but Baylor’s Freddie Gillespie starts to dominate inside. With Tillman out of the game, the Bears start to click and hold a 59-54 lead with five minutes to go.
Tillman insists to the trainers that he can play through the pain and is finally seen walking back to the bench, much to Izzo’s relief. Tillman re-enters the game and, although playing gingerly on his sore ankle, makes a noticeable difference.
The Spartans wake up and come all the way back to take down Baylor. Everyone contributed in this one to send the green and white to their second consecutive Final Four. Player of the game goes to Aaron Henry, who hit five threes en route to 19 points and seven rebounds. Michigan State 71 - Baylor 68
Final Four matchup:
#3 Michigan State vs. West Region Elite Eight winner