Why will Michigan State win the national championship? As I sat down and thought about what to plug into the blank document in front of me, I really believed I could finish this post and still feel completely vindicated with a mere two words: Tom Izzo.
Izzo, in my opinion, is arguably the best coach in the nation — a tier accompanied by only a few other greats — and prepares his players like no other. He never seems to have the best team in the field talent-wise, but Tommy always gets the most out of his guys each and every night. It’s hard to argue with a plus-.760 winning percentage in the NCAA and six Final Fours in the last 12 seasons of coaching at Michigan State. Izzo also has a high success rate of winning the games he’s supposed to win. It’s with this in mind that I can see Sparty advancing past Butler and onto its first national title since 2000.
Suffice to say, it’s not the trendy pick to select MSU as the favorite to keep on winning. What, with Bob Huggins and his alma mater having looked unbeatable since the Big East tournament, Duke continuing to be Duke, and Butler arising as America’s new favorite feel-good story, State looks to be on the outside. Especially when its tourney impact player is a 6-6 sophomore sixth man, point-forward Draymond Green — and don’t even begin to mention the loss of State’s best player, junior point guard Kalin Lucas, in the second round to injury. Still, I think the Spartans have something left in the tank to prove.
Since Lucas went down with an Achilles injury, Michigan State has actually gained confidence. The fact is that even without Lucas, MSU is still stacked in its top six players. What remains to be the bread and butter of the Izzone is its main offensive weapons and upperclassmen leadership: senior Raymar Morgan and juniors Durrell Summers and Chris Allen. Summers was the clear M.O.P. of the Midwest regional and has been clutch city thus far, as was Morgan in the Elite Eight win over Tennessee.
But what makes this ballclub one of a championship caliber is its supporting cast. I have been a fan of Green since I watched him scrap for 10 boards against Gonzaga last November, but I didn’t expect him to rise to the level of play he has during the tournament. His impact, along with Delvon Roe and Korie Lucious, isn’t necessarily felt in waves on the offensive end, but it’s the little things he does. Green has the ball-handling ability to bring the ball up the floor and he can draw Butler’s bigger defenders outside the paint, as well as battle inside the key for boards. Izzo’s replacement-Lucas, sophomore PG Korie Lucious, (who wasn’t known during the season for being a scorer) has consistently found the bottom of the net in crucial situations and is gaining confidence with every possession. Then there’s Roe, who I think is the key to MSU winning the whole ‘chip. If Roe can continue to make hustle plays, rebound effectively and provide a security threat on the offensive post, I see Sparty continuing its run.
It will also be hard for Butler to compete athletically inside with the length and strength of Michigan State’s frontline — if they can stay out of foul trouble. Sparty needs to control the glass like it has done throughout the tournament and continue to adapt to its opponents effectively. The problems for Michigan State lie within its guard play and perimeter defense. Morgan, Roe and Green are all quick enough to challenge Butler’s Gordon Hayward out to the arc, but Lucious and Allen will have to lock down Shelvin Mack in order for State to be successful.
Also, this may be the strongest Michigan State team that Coach Izzo has had since going to the Final Four back in ’04-05 with Maurice Ager, Shannon Brown, Paul Davis, Alan Anderson and Drew Neitzel — where they were also a 5-seed. It’s odd to think that even without Lucas, State finds itself again in a position to win a championship, and have an easier road than it did a year prior, where it lost to North Carolina in the final game. Last year, UNC was far and away the most talented team, and the clear favorite. This year, it’s a different story. Duke looked shaky against Baylor for the majority of its Elite Eight game, and Butler has never been in this position before as a university. I think at this moment, West Virginia poses the biggest threat to Michigan State — if they bypass Butler. Whichever scenario ends up playing out, this is going to be an exciting Final Four and will hopefully cap off one of the best NCAA Tournaments in recent history.