March is officially here, and postseason basketball has come as Michigan State travels down to face Penn State in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament.
Michigan State is a squad on the bubble, but looks to be comfortably in at the moment with a high NET rating from the NCAA and zero bad losses on their resume.
Teams that make runs in March often have to rely on your star players, talented backcourts and veteran players. That will need to be the case for Michigan State and their Head Coach Suzy Merchant.
It all starts with Nia Clouden, who was recently named to the First Team All-Big Ten squad after leading the Spartans in scoring and assists this season. However, after reaching or surpassing double digits points in every outing, Clouden has failed to do so in the past three games.
Heading into March, Merchant knows how vital Clouden’s play will be to their success.
“Your team is led by your best players, and when your best players are playing well, everybody feeds off of that,” Merchant said. "Nia is someone who's going to have to step up. I've single handedly watched kids in her role take our team to places we've never been before over victories over teams that maybe we shouldn't have won at the time. I think those kids are very important. She's got to have a little edge to her, certainly something to prove and continue to play the way we know that she can play but play with confidence and toughness. When she does that I feel like we have a really good opportunity to win games.”
Those star players also need the complementary stars around them and that comes in the form of Alyza Winston, who is trying to find consistency after an up-and-down season from a scoring output.
“Alyza with her freshman year where we had some veteran seniors and whatnot, she didn't play as much her freshman year, this is kind of like her true freshman year,” Merchant said. “I think her consistency when she scores the ball, is confident and plays the way we know she can, I think our team just gets a lot of juice from that and it takes a lot of pressure off of Nia Clouden.”
Tory Ozment could be the piece that fits it all together for the Spartans. As one of the few members left from the last time the Spartans made the tournament in 2019, Ozment is ready to bring a veteran presence to the squad for the postseason.
“She's a big part of what we do, and she's a very versatile kid,” Merchant said. “She's a really good defender, she's smart and she can certainly run in transition. She really puts pressure on defense with her transition offense.”
Michigan State will face Penn State in the second round after receiving a first round bye. The last time the teams met, the Spartans won in Happy Valley by 13 on behalf of strong bench play for the Spartans.
However, this Penn State squad is a dangerous team come March with their versatility and three-point shooting.
“If that ball drops and we can't get to that three-point line, you're certainly in trouble,” Merchant said. “I think they space the floor really well. They have a bunch of different defenses, so preparing for them, you got to make sure you get through the things that they do. They have a couple different presses. They have different zones. They can man you. They can jump. They can ball screen defense a lot of different ways. They’re a tough draw on some levels.”
This March could mean more than just big wins for this young team as they look to build experience for themselves for future tournament runs as well.
“Do I think it can be that next level group, I do,” Merchant said. “We certainly have the opportunity to stay together for a while since we're pretty young out there in terms of who we graduate. I'm excited about this group right now but certainly the ceiling and where it can go in the future.”
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