As millions of brackets are being filled in across the country, 68 teams are preparing for the most exciting month in all of sports. Over the next three weeks those 68 will be whittled down to just one – the lone team that gets to cut down the nets and bring home the NCAA Championship. Not surprisingly, both Michigan and Michigan State are in the running, and both teams will open play this Thursday in Auburn Hills. Get a quick preview of the first-round matchups here.
Michigan – South Dakota State:
Michigan will be playing in the South region against South Dakota State, champions of the Summit League. The Wolverines, led by Big Ten POY Trey Burke are hoping to avoid a second consecutive first-round defeat, after losing in the first round to Ohio University 65-60 in last year’s tournament. Michigan finished with a #10 ranking in the AP Poll, but have been struggling down the final stretch of the season. In their past 10 games, the Wolverines are just 5-5, and have only scored 75 or more four times, after averaging that amount through the first 18 games of the season. Burke brought home Player of the Year honors in the Big Ten, but Michigan bowed out of the Big Ten Tournament in the 2nd round. Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. are averaging a combined 35 points per game for the Maize and Blue, proving that there is no shortage of offensive firepower, but it is their post play that might help the Wolverines make a deep run through March. To me, the X-Factor for John Beilein’s team will be the play of freshman forward Mitch McGary. McGary is only averaging just over 6 points per game for the Wolverines, but has scored in the double-digits several times this season, while giving Michigan an inside presence and an excellent defender. Knowing that Burke and Hardaway will produce, teams will need to gameplan for McGary as well if they hope to take down the Wolverines.
#4 Michigan and #13 South Dakota St. are scheduled to tip-off on at The Palace of Auburn Hills on Thursday at 7:15 pm.
Michigan State – Valparaiso:
The Spartans are in familiar territory this time of year. For the past 17 years, Michigan State has earned a berth in the NCAA tournament, reaching the semifinals 6 times during that stretch. Michigan State ended ranked #9 in the final AP Poll, and lost in the second round of the Big Ten Tournament to eventual champion Ohio State. The Spartans are led in scoring by junior Keith Appling and Big Ten Freshman of the Year Gary Harris, who are each averaging about 13 points per game. While many are concerned with Appling’s recent play, let me remind you that he averaged 12 points per game during last year’s tournament – as a sophomore. The Spartans have NBA talent in Harris and junior forward Adreian Payne, whose extended shooting range could pose a challenge for opposing defenses. Tom Izzo’s Spartans are playing in what is widely considered to be the toughest region of the bracket, and would have to get past (most likely) Memphis, Duke and #1 overall seed Louisville to reach the semifinals. My X-Factor for this year’s Michigan State team is not a player, but Izzo himself. His poise and experience this time of the year will be invaluable for his team. Tough scheduling, an extremely competitive Big Ten season, and a healthy team will help Sparty make a deep run into the tournament. Izzo just seems to be able to work magic this time of year, and will have the Spartans where they want to be entering Thursday’s game. Their first-round matchup is against Horizon League champion Valparaiso, a senior-heavy team who have won 10 of their last 11 games. Michigan State and Valpo are competing in the Midwest region.
#3 Michigan State and #14 Valparaiso are scheduled to tip-off at The Palace of Auburn Hills on Thursday at 12:15pm