Wednesday, September 23, 2020

NCAA Tournament Projection: Michigan State vs. BYU Final Four

High drama ensues as the hypothetical tournament charges to a finish

April 6, 2020
<p>Iowa guard Connor McCaffery (30) shoots over junior forward Xavier Tillman Sr. (23). The Spartans defeated the Hawkeyes, 78-70, at the Breslin Center on Feb. 25, 2020. </p>

Iowa guard Connor McCaffery (30) shoots over junior forward Xavier Tillman Sr. (23). The Spartans defeated the Hawkeyes, 78-70, at the Breslin Center on Feb. 25, 2020.

Photo by Matt Zubik | The State News

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 may have looked like, round by round, region by region.

No. 3 Michigan State (South) vs. No. 6 BYU (West)

Preview: MSU has put together a nice run so far en route to the Final Four, taking down teams like Baylor and Creighton, the top two seeds in their region. In the Sweet Sixteen victory over the Bluejays, the Spartans were able to contain the shooting threats that Creighton possessed.

If the Spartans want to advance to their fourth-ever national championship game, they will have to do the same thing against BYU. The Cougars boast five regulars in their lineup who are shooting at least 42% from behind the arc. MSU will either have to limit that rate or find a way to keep up. Cassius Winston is the only Spartan regular shooting better than 40% from three.

In their Elite Eight win over LSU, BYU proved that they're more than just a team that can shoot. Yoeli Childs put together a transcendent performance to pull out a cold Cougar squad, and they'll need him and his rebounding prowess just as much as their shooters to keep the best season in program history alive.

The Game: The site of the game is the Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. Warming up on one side of the court is the Michigan State Spartans, led by coach Tom Izzo, who are appearing in their 11th Final Four. On the other side is coach Mark Pope and the BYU Cougars, who are making their first-ever appearance in the Final Four.

Pope knows his team is ready for a game of this magnitude, not paying any attention to the fact that the Cougars are heavy underdogs. As he stands alone in the hallway before going into the locker room and delivering a Herb Brooks-esque pregame speech, he takes a moment to soak everything in.

Izzo, on the other hand, knows he doesn’t have to say much. The Spartans were in this exact spot last year, and they remember the feeling of falling at the hands of Texas Tech, a game they believe they should’ve won. The green and white are determined to not disappoint two years in a row.

The game eventually gets underway, and BYU takes the opening tip. They get off to a hot start thanks to what has been the driving force of their success this season, three-point shooting. Guard Jake Toolson hits four threes within the first five minutes, giving the Cougars an early 18-11 lead.

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Infuriated, Izzo calls a timeout. His team is only down seven, but he’s seen enough. He needs a spark off the bench, someone who can help lock down the perimeter and contain the relentless three-point shooting of BYU. It’s Malik Hall’s time to shine.

Hall comes into the game and does just what Izzo hoped he would do. Playing sound defense and making smart decisions with the basketball, Hall helps calm the team down en route to a narrow 45-41 halftime lead over the Cougars. As both teams head back to the locker room, Migos, an Atlanta based hip-hop group, get ready to perform an electric halftime show.

Coming out of the half, Pope elects to take a more conservative approach and features T.J. Haws and Childs’ masterful rendition of the pick and roll more prominently. This decision works beautifully as Michigan State allows a 12-3 run right out of the gate, punctuated by a thunderous jam from Childs. The lion’s share of the momentum rests firmly with the Cougars early in the second half.

The Spartans have been here before, though. Winston draws on his experience to hold the team steady and keep pace with the Cougars, patiently weathering a tight BYU defense to engineer the comeback. After he dishes it to Rocket Watts for a three, the game is tied 68-68 as the crowd swells to a fever pitch. Both teams are playing their best basketball and vying for one big play, one defining moment, to give them the emotional edge.

Of course, one team is more than willing to deliver this moment.

With 6:34 left in the game, Haws takes it down the court and passes it to Toolson. Childs is already in motion and it’s clear that this is his shot to take, so Toolson gives it back to Haws and Haws quickly tosses it to Childs. Childs takes it up for the dunk to give the Cougars the lead — only to be met by Xavier Tillman Sr.

The Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year gives the Spartans their moment with a brutal block that sends Childs to the floor and the Spartan bench into hysterics. BYU doesn’t back down, but they’re not the same after that play. The Cougars prized shooting gets stymied, their defense flounders and the dream season comes to an end in a 82-75 whimper that isn’t as close as the final score suggests.

And for the first time since 2009, the Spartans are back in the national title game, one win away from delivering on a promise to finish the season on top. In his postgame press conference, Izzo emotionally reminisces on a season that has seen his team battle through every form of adversity to reach the mountaintop.

National Championship:

No. 3 Michigan State vs. No. 1 Kansas

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