Michigan State found out yesterday afternoon that it will head down to Columbus as a No. 7 seed to take on No. 10 seed USC in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. With a day of scouting the opponent and additional player meetings, head coach Tom Izzo took to the podium to discuss the upcoming tournament.
“There is no first game that's very safe anymore, and that is different from the last probably 10 years,” Izzo said. “Up until then, you felt pretty good about getting out of the first weekend, pretty good. Now, I don’t think you feel pretty good getting out of the first game no matter who you are.”
That looks to be the case this Friday, when the Spartans tip-off against the Trojans at 12:15 p.m. Playing in the PAC-12, USC has plenty of experience playing some of the best teams in the nation, and in some cases, beating them.
“They’ve played teams like Arizona right to the wire. Beat UCLA, who’s really good,” Izzo said. “They’re talented, they're athletic.”
One of the more lethal parts is guard Drew Peterson. The 6-foot-9-inch fifth-year senior is a lengthy, experienced guard that leads the team in rebounds per game (6.2) and assists (4.4).
“He’s got Larry Bird qualities,” Izzo said. “He can shoot the ball, but he’s a really good passer.”
USC is a team led by its guard play. The top-four leading scores on the team play the position and a guard leads the Trojans in average points, rebounds and assists per game.
However, that means USC doesn’t have a truly dominant center that Michigan State has been accustomed to playing in the Big Ten.
“I think the matchup is good from the standpoint that they don’t have the dominating center,” Izzo said. “They’ve got a good center in (Joshua) Morgan, who’s a shot blocker and a rebounder, but in our league we play against so many centers that we’ve had to double and do different things on, I don’t think we’ll have to do that same thing here.”
The Spartans won’t just have to worry about the Trojans. After a deflating loss to Ohio State in their first game of the Big Ten Tournament, there have been plenty of meetings in the offices and courts of the Breslin Center to figure out exactly what went wrong. Despite that poor performance, Izzo is confident his players have it in them to rebound from the loss.
“We’ve played one of the best schedules, so I think our guys are prepared for anything and everything,” Izzo said. “I think we’ve gotten up off the canvas enough times that we understand that you can’t let it linger, and that’s kind of what we talked about Sunday. We had some long meetings and some meetings with players and some meetings with our team to really talk about where we are.”
Senior forward Malik Hall is one of those players that met with Izzo in the wake of the tournament loss. Hall has struggled as of late, still a step slow from a left ankle injury that has affected large stretches of the season. He had an especially rough performance in the Big Ten Tournament, shooting 0-6 from the field and notching just three points.
However, Izzo made it clear that Hall is still an essential piece of the team.
“I think he is still our most versatile player,” Izzo said. "He’s gotta be one of the guys that plays well if we want to advance in this tournament.”
Junior guard A.J. Hoggard is another player that will need to be on his game if MSU is hoping to make it past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. He struggled running the offense against the Buckeyes, notching just two assists, two turnovers and 10 points.
“If you ask me, he has a chance to still be really, really, really good,” Izzo said. “Him figuring out how to listen to what we’re saying and yet still have the cockiness and the little arrogance that every great quarterback needs to have, is the balancing act."
However, a win on Friday won’t come down to any one player. It’s balance that will likely be the key to some wins in March.
After sporting a great defense for most of the season, Michigan State ended the regular season relying on improved showing from its shooters to win. At times, the offense is humming. At others, the defense is. Rarely this season have those occurred simultaneously.
“We’re good enough defensively if we play good defense. We’ve shown in the last three weeks to a month that we’re good enough offensively,” Izzo said. “If we could ever put the two together, we’re good enough to make a real run.”