#4/5 Michigan State 29-4 vs Bucknell 25-9 Scouting Report & Prediction

Little Caesars Arena

Detroit, MI

At 7:10 PM tonight, CBS will broadcast #3 seed Michigan State and #14 seed Bucknell.  Ranked #4/5 nationally, the Spartans look to show everyone that their #3 seed was disrespectful and not prophetic.

This is Coach Tom Izzo’s 21st straight NCAA tournament appearance in his 23rd season as MSU’s head man. That streak ranks second among active coaches to Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski. Izzo’s seven Final Fours are the most in Big Ten history and tied for fifth all-time. The Spartans are 47-19 under Izzo, whose .712 winning percentage is fifth among active coaches. His 47 wins are tied for seventh-most in NCAA tournament history. Nathan Davis is 68-32 with three Patriot League regular-season titles in three seasons at Bucknell. Davis spent six seasons at his alma mater, Division III Randolph-Macon, where he was 141-39.

If the Spartans were to blowout Bucknell, it will be because the Bison played a poor game.  This Patriot League perennial power is consistent and talented, albeit NOT deep.

For the Bison, facing a very big Spartan team is going to pose some interesting issues.  That starts with sure fire NBA lottery pick (whenever he chooses to go) Jaren Jackson, Jr. (3J).

Senior forward Zach Thomas says of facing 3J, “Obviously he’s a draft, a lottery pick type. So it’s going to be a tough matchup. So I think with that you just kind of have to look at where I could limit him as best I can. And then I think I’m a matchup problem as well for him.  So just try and exploit his small weaknesses that he has and then play to my strengths and use my knowledge of the game since — you know, he’s a freshman so hopefully I have a little bit of experience on him.”

While many fans may see the #14 next to the name of Bucknell and assume the Spartans will merely throw them to side, Coach Tom Izzo doesn’t feel that way.  This is a very talented team and Izzo admits he shakes his head when he sees that #14 seed.

Izzo said, “I looked at Bucknell, and I kind of shake my head that they’re a 14 seed. And I mean that. You’ve got three seniors that can all put the ball in the hole. Brown is a very good point guard. They all shoot 3s. I think seven or eight of the nine players, I think seven of the nine all shoot 3s at a regular basis.  They have experience. They have some depth. They have some speed. And as I said, you know, when you play in games like this, if anything’s called an upset anymore — and I don’t know if it is — but the way upsets are made a lot of times is by the 3-point shot, and they have a lot of players that can make 3-point shots. And we’re going to have to defend that.”

Thomas agrees with Izzo, “Yeah, we shake our heads when they’re a 3 seed. No, it’s just the way it worked out, I guess. We feel like we could probably could have been maybe a little bit higher, but we like our chances either way. No matter who we’re playing against, we’ve just got to play solid. If we don’t come out and play solid then we’re going to get beaten.  We know we just have to be focused. Didn’t matter really what game we got or who we drew. We knew it was going to be tough. So we’re ready to have that focus today in shootaround, and then tomorrow in the game.”

But Bucknell knows that the Spartans big game is not just about 3J.  Nick Ward is a star and senior center Nana Foulland talked about his matchup with the Spartan star.  “He loves getting into deep position, getting easy buckets. It’s hard. But at the same time, it’s fun playing people like that. You don’t want it easy. You want someone who is going to go at you. And I’m going to go at him.  You gotta work, fight around and try not to give him easy touches, make everything hard. Good players are going to do what good players do. But you have to make every possession hard for him.”

Bucknell Coach Nathan Davis is a star.  He gets the most out of what he has and he embraces competing with perennial power Michigan State and their legendary Hall of Fame coach.  “Obviously we’re very excited to be here. We know it’s going to be a great challenge. Michigan State’s got one of the best teams in the country. I think we’ve got a pretty good team, too. So we’ll go out there and see what happens.  We don’t need to be better than them for four games or four days. It’s only 40 minutes. We’ll see what happens.”

With the Spartans playing so close to home and really in their second home Detroit, Davis knows that the crowd is a key factor.  With tickets on the secondary market selling for as much as $1,000, the Spartans will have the home advantage.  “I think to have a chance to win is the most important thing is to not fall too far behind. They’re really, really good, one of the best teams in the country. They’re talented, have a great coach. I think we need to play well for 40 minutes to give ourselves a chance at the end to win the game. And the better team you play the smaller margin for error you have, so if you fall down 10, 12, 13 points, you’ve dug a hole that’s hard to get out of. So being able to stay as collected or hopefully be able to lead the whole way, but at least being able to stay in contact is going to be a big deal.”

Davis broke down the Spartans saying, “You’ve seen them play; they don’t have a lot of weaknesses. No, I’ll say first off, we’re not going to try to slow them down we’re going to try to play the way we play because that’s when we’re at our best.  But they do a lot of things really well. Obviously, you start with Bridges and Jackson, and they’re extremely talented. Coach Izzo does a great job. They defend and rebound. They share the ball. I think they get over 19 assists per game. One of the tops in the country.  They shoot over 50 percent from the floor. Shoot 40 percent from the 3. So what we’ve got to do is go out there, we’ve got to just try to make sure that we make it hard; that we don’t give up open jumpers; that we box out. So if they are going to get offensive rebounds, they’re going to get some, they at least have to go over us or around us, not able to go right down the lane to get them; that we attack on offense, to try to get them on their heels, make them guard us the whole possession and take shots when they’re available. But we have to make sure in order to get the good shots that we work together. If we do those things, I think we’ll have a great opportunity tomorrow.”

While the Bison are not a deep team, their guard play is amazing to watch; something Cassius Winston and I talked about.  He said, “Their guards have a lot of experience and they’re playing with a lot of confidence. They’re going to make and take tough shots. We gotta keep funneling them into tough shots. Don’t let them get their rhythm going and stuff like that early.”

Captain LouRawls “TUM TUM” Nairn discussed their guards with great respect when I asked him.  “I think their experience, with so many seniors, makes them a really good team. Like Cash said, they have that experience, we’ll be fine.”

Nairn added of the senior-laden Bison, “Just understanding that they’ve played together for a while. And in the tournament, experience helps but we’re a pretty young team but we have a lot of experience. Me being a fourth-year senior guy, a fifth-year senior and a sixth-year senior, but also our freshmen and sophomores, they have a year of experience under their belt, too.”

I asked Izzo what stood out most to him on film with Bucknell and he wasted no time to say, “They’ve got inside/outside — they’ve got a guard, they’ve got a forward and they’ve got a center. The center was MVP last year. The forward is MVP this year. The center is defensive player of the year this year. The point guard is quick and can do a lot of things. So they’ve got a lot of pieces right there.  If you’ve got a good inside game, sometimes it’s easy to press up if you’ve just got a good perimeter game. They really do have maybe the ultimate balance. And that center is, the way he can shoot it right hand and left hand is effective and good and we’re going to have to do a job good on him.  They also get to the free-throw line a lot. And Thomas gets there seven times in their conference, I think nine times throughout the year, and that’s a lot of times getting to a free-throw line.”

Michigan State has better players and more of them.  The Spartans have a better head coach, but none of those things makes Bucknell a bad team.  The crowd is going to be a major deal for the Spartans.  It is hard to imagine a Bucknell team playing poorly.  They are loaded with seniors and have not done that this year.

I expect Bucknell to play well, but with a massive Spartan crowd and the Spartans talent coming in waves, Michigan State will be too much.  With the help of free throws down the home stretch, I call it Michigan State 77-69.

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