No. 7 Michigan State is heading to New York City for its third game of the NCAA Tournament, taking on No. 3 Kansas State for a bid to the Elite Eight. The Spartans survived week one of the tournament notching wins over No. 10 USC and No. 2 Marquette.
“It is in Madison Square Garden, which is the Mecca of all basketball,” head men's basketball coach Tom Izzo said. “We played there once, they have a little experience in there. And yet we’re going to be excited to be in there playing against a great team with a chance to play in an Elite Eight on the line. It doesn’t get any better than that.”
Michigan State ended the regular season with the offense firing on all cylinders, especially from deep, averaging nearly 85 points per game. However, the script has flipped in March: the Spartans are winning NCAA Tournament games based primarily on their defense.
In Sunday evening's upset over Marquette, Michigan State shot 2-16 from three and still managed to pull off a win, playing consistent gap defense that forced the Golden Eagles to turn the ball over 16 times.
“You can’t really depend on making shots - if they go in they go in,” graduate student forward Joey Hauser said. “But defensively, that’s something we can hang our hats on and something that’s going to travel.”
Sophomore guard Jaden Akins and senior forward Malik Hall are two of the players driving that impressive defensive play. The duo are consistently tasked with guarding the, building a brick wall on the perimeter that’s given opponents fits.
The Spartans have done an excellent job shutting down the opponent’s top players. USC’s best player, senior guard Boogie Ellis, put up just six points against MSU. Sophomore guard Tyler Kolek, arguably the best of Marquette’s starting five, put up just seven points and turned the ball over six times. Again, it’s defense that has propelled the Spartans to week two of the NCAA Tournament.
However, the offensive output hasn’t entirely dissipated despite the slump in three point shooting. Michigan State’s offense is coming from the paint, with its guards unafraid to play aggressive and drive at the best. Senior guard Tyson Walker has led that charge. He put up 23 points against Marquette Sunday, scoring impressive and essential baskets in the final minutes of the second half.
“He breaks down the defender, gets to his midrange, get to his step back, or gets to the rim,” Hauser said. “His finish around the rim is probably better than anyone I’ve seen or anyone I’ve played with.”
While Walker is certainly the star of the tournament so far, Michigan State has gotten production from across the lineup.
Hauser has been ever-reliable; he scored a team-high 17 points against USC in the first round and 14 points against the Golden Eagles in the second. Junior guard A.J. Hoggard hasn’t put up any eye-popping stat lines yet, but he’s pushing the ball down the court quickly and avoiding silly shots that halt offensive momentum.
Even junior center Mady Sissoko, who’s been inconsistent through most of the season, has been a key piece of the squad. He was especially strong in MSU’s upset win over No. 2 seed Marquette, blocking two key shots in the waning minutes and tallying eight points and 10 rebounds.
Continued production from players not named Walker and Hauser is essential if Michigan State wants to keep dancing beyond Thursday.
Scouting the opponent
Kansas State ended the regular season in third place in its conference standings, finishing beyond Kansas and Texas in a deep Big 12. More recently, the Wildcats defeated No. 14 seed Montana State and No. 6 Kentucky in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
“They’re really talented,” Akins said. “They get up and down, play fast pace. Athletic, play defense. They’re a really good team.”
Senior Keyontae Johnson is the name Michigan State will have circled, underlined and highlighted in red on the scouting report. The 6-foot-6 forward can score anywhere on the court; his length makes him a force to be reckoned with in the paint, but shooting 40.5% from beyond the arc, one can’t afford to drop in coverage. Johnson leads the team in both points (17.5) and rebounds (seven) per game.
In terms of guard play, senior Markquis Nowell is another highly-talented player to be keyed-in on at all times. Averaging a team high 7.8 rebounds per game, he’s an excellent distributor; however, he also has a scary scoring ability, averaging 17.1 points per game on the season. Nowell was key in Kansas State’s win over Kentucky in the second round of the tournament, notching 27 points, nine assists and three steals.
“He’s the engine that makes the team go,” Akins said. “We just gotta try to slow him down.”
Tipoff is set for 6:30 p.m. from Madison Square Garden.