Monday, September 20, 2021

Column: Big win opportunities shrinking for Michigan State women's hoops to make the tournament

January 29, 2021
<p>MSU&#x27;s Nia Clouden (24) and Taiyier Parks (14) defend against Detroit Mercy on Dec. 02, 2020.</p>

MSU's Nia Clouden (24) and Taiyier Parks (14) defend against Detroit Mercy on Dec. 02, 2020.

Photo by Lauren Snyder | The State News

It feels odd to be looking at Bracketology on ESPN after last year’s tournament was canceled and watching GameStop’s stocks soar into Fortune 500 company territory.

But that’s exactly what I found myself doing Thursday prior to Michigan State’s loss to No. 7 Maryland.

Michigan State women’s basketball found itself just days after their 32-point thrashing of Wisconsin in the opposite position as the Terrapins dismantled the Spartans by 40 points on both ends of the ball.

The Spartans (9-3, 4-3 Big Ten) began the season with their best start since 2012-2013 with an 8-0 record through as many games this year. The team was rolling prior to falling two games short of their best start since the 2012-13 season with their first loss coming against, of course, Maryland on Jan. 7.

With one of the best guards in the nation in Nia Clouden and one of the deepest rosters Michigan State women’s basketball Head Coach Suzy Merchant has ever had, the Spartans are still in good shape when thinking about the NCAA Tournament.

The issue is time.

In Michigan State’s five postponed matchups, four of them were against current AP Top 25 teams. Teams also were limited in their non-conference scheduling as well as travel due to the pandemic.

The issue with this? The best win for Michigan State likely came against Central Michigan.

 While those games being potentially lost is not anyone’s fault, it still hurts a resume at the end of the day.

Now with only nine games remaining on their current schedule with the potential for more or less depending on the health of teams, the Spartans only have two games left against teams in the AP Top 25 if things cannot get rescheduled.

That also comes with the uncertainty of the Big Ten tournament, which even Merchant advised against this week on her radio show.

“What I think they should do, not that anybody's going to listen, but I don't think we should have our conference tournament,” Merchant said. “I think we should use that week right now and use that as makeup games and opportunities to spread some things out for the health and safety of our student-athletes. No. 1: because playing back to back as a lot, mentally and traveling. Then the other thing is putting a lot of teams together in one place right now is kind of like a petri dish for COVID, I'm not sure that's really something we want to contribute to.”

While it’s likely that the team will attempt to play their postponed games, this COVID-19 era has been unforgiving and unpredictable. We don’t even know how big or small the NCAA Tournament will be.

Prior to their 40-point loss to Maryland, the Spartans were set as a No. 8 seed in ESPN’s Bracketology and as a No. 9 seed by NCAA.com. In a position like that, wins against top teams are vital to getting into the tournament.

The doors of opportunity are closing and don't seem to be reopening anytime soon.

Even if Michigan State and the rest of the Big Ten could remain completely COVID-free for the next two months, there still might not be enough time to get the games that the Spartans may need.

“I think probably what they would look at right now would be no more than four (games in a week),” Merchant said. “Problem is, you might be doing that back-to-back-to-back weeks to get everything in. I think we've missed four games total that we haven't rescheduled yet that they're trying to reschedule. Ohio State was on a shutdown, and then we were on our pause, so there's four there and a 20-game schedule. We got quite a bit to go here in a short period of time, so it's going to pick up.”

The fact of the matter is, there might not be enough time to get every game into the schedule now, making the chances they do get to play even more valuable as time goes on.

Michigan State will get that chance fairly quickly as they will look to bounce back versus Indiana on Sunday afternoon. The Hoosiers will be one of the toughest defensive teams the Spartans have faced all season long in addition to having the offensive firepower to keep up with Michigan State on the offensive side of the floor as well.

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We have another game coming up on Sunday and a tough one with Indiana,” Merchant said. “A good offense and defensive team, so it’s not going to get any easier for us.”

To capitalize on these opportunities, the team needs to have support around their star Clouden on the offensive end. That is something that's been missing in Michigan State’s three losses this season.

In the team’s best win this season against Iowa, it was Alyza Winston who scored 25 points to seal the deal at home. In other times, it’s been the post play of Taiyier Parks and Alisia Smith combining for 34 against Wisconsin or Julia Ayrault sparking a run to keep the Spartans in it against Maryland.

If this team wants to play big-time basketball, they’ll need those big-time performances that this team has shown they’re capable of.

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