Michigan State is on cusp of NCAA bid; here’s how the Spartans have gotten there

During seven games in a 16-day stretch, Michigan State has won five times,…

Michigan State is on cusp of NCAA bid; here's how the Spartans have gotten there 1
Michigan State is on cusp of NCAA bid; here's how the Spartans have gotten there 2

Matt Charboneau
| The Detroit News

A little more than two weeks ago, Michigan State finding a path to the NCAA Tournament seemed unlikely, at best.

Actually, it was hard to find anyone, outside of the most ardent Spartans supporter or someone in the locker room, who believed Michigan State would extend its tournament streak to 23 seasons. A lot of it had to do with the daunting schedule the Spartans faced. Over the final 16 days of the season, Michigan State would have to play seven games with four of those games being against teams that, at the time, were ranked among the top five in the nation.

That’s tough sledding in any season, but considering the Spartans were sitting at 10-9 overall and 4-9 in the conference, had one of the most inefficient offenses in the nation and showed little sign of turning things around, no one was betting on the run that just came to an end on Sunday.

That run, of course, included five wins, with three of them coming over those top-five teams — Michigan, Illinois and Ohio State. Throw in two victories over Indiana and Michigan State appears to be a lock to be in the field, regardless of what happens this week at the Big Ten tournament.

Sure, Michigan State (15-11, 9-11 Big Ten) finished with a losing conference record for the first time in Tom Izzo’s career, but in this year’s Big Ten, it doesn’t hurt as much as perhaps some others.

“The Big Ten Conference, there is not even an argument that it has been the best conference in the country all year,” Izzo said. “The best conference in the country should get maybe nine teams in this year.

“But I’m not on the committee. I’m not politicking for anything. We did just about everything we could do and I think that because of our league, because of the other teams in our league, because of how good Michigan is, how good Ohio State is, how good Iowa is, how good Illinois — who might be as good as everybody. … If I had a vote, I’d vote us in.”

The committee likely will agree, but only after a remarkable final 16 days. Before that, Michigan State looked like anything but a tournament team. Some two weeks later, it’s all changed.

How did the Spartans do it? How did they rally to this point?

Of course, there’s never one reason, so we broke down five of the most important.

More: Niyo: Rocket Watts hits liftoff at optimum time in Spartans’ resurgence

More: Spartans emerge on top of the world after 16-day roller-coaster ride

Getting defensive

Let’s be clear: Michigan State didn’t become a great defensive team over the last few weeks; it just stopped being bad. In the first half of the Big Ten season, the Spartans not only were ranked as one of worst offensive teams, their defensive efficiency lacked as well.

Things began to change at various moments in the second half of the season and truly picked up steam over the final two weeks. In Michigan State’s five victories since Feb. 20, it held its opponent to less than their scoring averaging in four of those games, including limiting Michigan to 64 points on Sunday while also holding Isaiah Livers, Hunter Dickinson and Franz Wagner below their scoring average.

Aaron Henry stood out defensively all season, but Malik Hall was solid while the likes of Rocket Watts and Joshua Langford, normally good defenders, started to toughen up at different times down the stretch. And after allowing Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis to score 34 back on Feb. 20, the bigs actually fared well against the likes of Kofi Coburn of Illinois, E.J. Liddell of Ohio State and Dickinson.

By the end of the season, Michigan State was a top 35 team in the country in defensive efficiency, quite a turnaround from the dark days of the conference season.

Rejuvenated Rocket

He was lost at times this season. In fact, Watts spent for more time searching than producing, but even with a no-show at Michigan on Thursday and in Tuesday’s win over Indiana, Watts was pivotal in the first win over Indiana and in beating Illinois. But it was the way Watts played on Sunday against Michigan that reminded everyone of the impact he can have on the Spartans at both ends of the floor. Playing more time at point guard than expected, Watts was as confident as he’s been all season and rarely made a poor decision. He shot 50% from the field and scored 21 points while showing a defensive tenacity that has been lacking this season.

It’s something the Spartans expected most of the season and believed they had back in December when he scored 20 in a win at Duke and then poured in 23 against Detroit Mercy.

Consistency has been a problem, no doubt, but Watts was important to the season’s close, and he’ll be just as vital as Michigan State heads into the postseason.

Something from everyone

There have been late-season runs before from Michigan State, whether they were to secure a spot in the tournament or to win a championship. Often, the Spartans rode one player to make it happen. Travis Trice had a remarkable close to his senior season in 2015, leading MSU to the conference tournament championship game and an unlikely trip to the Final Four. Cassius Winston was the catalyst in back-to-back seasons, getting conference titles in 2019 and 2020 with a win over Duke and spot in the Final Four highlighting 2019.

This run, though, has needed everyone. Henry has been outstanding, but he’s needed help and it’s come from up and down the roster. When the run started back at Indiana, it was 14 points each from Langford and Gabe Brown while Thomas Kithier was the only one to slow Jackson-Davis. Langford’s 13 points and 16 rebounds were critical in the Illinois win, while Joey Hauser hit huge second-half 3-pointers against Illinois and Ohio State.

Mix in Hall’s late rebounding and free throws against Ohio State with the confidence slowly building with both Marcus Bingham Jr. and Julius Marble, and the rotation is working. Heck, even Jack Hoiberg played seven minutes on Sunday, proving that everyone is pitching in for the Spartans.

Taking care of the ball

Turnovers remain one of Michigan State’s biggest problems, but the Spartans have actually started to do a better job over the last coupe of weeks. In four of the final seven games, Michigan State has turned the ball over less than 10 times, winning two of those games.

The overall numbers are still ugly as Michigan State ranks last in the Big Ten in turnover margin, but it’s been weeks since they miserable 22-turnover performance in a win over Nebraska, and Watts went a five-game stretch beginning at Indiana with a total of four turnovers.

Again, this issue hasn’t completely been fixed. Michigan State still nearly gave away the Michigan game on Sunday with two turnovers in the final minute from Langford and Watts. But it’s getting better, and if the Spartans have any chance at continuing their run, it will need to keep trending that way.

Oh, Henry

All of the reasons we’ve covered have certainly helped Michigan State turn the season around, but none of it matters without Henry. Named the Big Ten Player of the Week, the junior wing has scored in double figures in each of the last 13 games and has scored 20 or more in three of the last seven games, all Michigan State victories.

But as important as the points are — not to mention his defense, with nine blocks in the last seven games — it’s when his points are coming that is most important. With the game on the line, Henry has answered the bell time and time again. He scored a career-high 27 in the first win over Indiana then had a personal 12-0 run in the final five minutes in the rematch with the Hoosiers.

His jumper with 1:08 to play against Ohio State gave the Spartans a three-point lead and on Sunday against Michigan, Henry scored four in a row, hitting a jumper and getting past Wagner to give MSU a seven-point lead with 2:53 to play.

He’s been the Spartans’ go-to guy all season, especially when they’ve needed him the most.


Twitter: @mattcharboneau

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