The No. 7-seeded Michigan State Spartans (25-11; 12-6) are rolling with wins over No. 10-seeded Georgia, then No. 2-seeded Virginia, but it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. With the victory over the Cavaliers, Michigan State clinched a Sweet 16 berth for the seventh time in eight years, and a Final Four appearance is looking increasingly more likely with the top seed in the East region already eliminated.
But even for Tom Izzo, the face of a program known for its clutch March Madness performances, the 2015’s NCAA tournament is shaping up to be special. The Spartans take on No. 3-seeded Oklahoma on Friday in Syracuse, and won't be looking past the Sooners for a chance to face Villanova, with the No. 1 seed’s upset loss to North Carolina State. Odds makers have the Spartans as favorites (7/4) to win the East and advance to the Final Four over Louisville (12/5), Oklahoma (12/5) and NC State (6/1), according to bovada.lv.
There is no Magic Johnson or Mateen Cleaves on this roster, but Izzo has a pair of dynamic guards in senior Travis Trice and junior Denzel Valentine who provide a good shot at writing another chapter in Michigan State lore after already bouncing out Virginia. The 2010 Spartans squad might be a comparable team, since it made a run to the Final Four as a five-seed against a weakened bracket. Featuring current NBA workhorse Draymond Green, the 2010 Spartans beat No. 12 seed New Mexico State, No. 4 Maryland, No. 9 Northern Iowa and No. 6 Tennessee before falling to tournament darling No. 5 Butler in the Final Four.
But if Michigan State were to make the Final Four as a No.7 seed, it would be an accomplishment all its own in the program's history. The Elite Eight is the furthest a Michigan State team advanced in the tournament as six-seed or lower. The 2003 squad over-achieved as a No. 7-seed to advance to the Elite Eight before losing to top-seeded Texas.
This year’s squad will likely continue to lean on Trice and Valentine to attempt to replicate that success. Trice was the hero against Virginia, dropping 23 points after Valentine got in foul trouble and had to play fewer minutes. Senior forward Branden Dawson chipped in as well, adding 15 points and nine rebounds to help shoulder the load. The trio of Trice, Valentine and Dawson has combined for 87 points (or 66.9 percent) of the Spartans 130 total points in the tournament.
Izzo’s team is far from a superstar-reliant team, however. As usual, the coach has the rotation playing solid defense (58.5 ppg allowed in the tournament) while making very few mistakes (just 15 turnovers in two games). It’s no coincidence that Izzo has led the Spartans to six Final Four appearances and a National Championship. His teams do not beat themselves.
The next step for Michigan State is Friday’s game against an Oklahoma team that hasn’t truly been tested in its wins over No. 14-seeded Albany and No. 11-seeded Dayton. Johnson, who was the Most Outstanding Player in Michigan State's 1979 championship, told the Spartans their win over Virginia was “beautiful to watch.” Cleaves, who has served as a broadcaster for CBS during the tournament, referenced on Twitter to "never bet against Tom Izzo."
It likely won't be an easy trip to the Final Four. The Sooners, who have won 12 of their last 15 games after a rough spell in the mid January, promise to be a tough test on Friday. In the past seven weeks, Oklahoma has victories over West Virginia, Iowa State, Texas, and Kansas. Lon Kruger's squad withstood a late charge by Albany and managed to scrape out a victory over Dayton.
Next Opponent: Oklahoma (No. 3 seed)
Date: Friday, March 27
Time: 10:07 p.m. ET
Where: Carrier Dome in Syracuse
Betting Odds: Michigan State favored by 2.5 points