Michigan State jumped out to a big early lead and maintained a comfortable cushion from there in dispatching Big Ten rival Minnesota, 70-50, in the NCAA tournament’s East Region on Saturday.
Winners of seven straight games, No. 2 seed Michigan State (30-6) started out 5-for-5 from the floor with five different players scoring as it was a precursor to how Saturday’s game would unfold. Dominating on the interior, the Spartans destroyed Minnesota on the glass (45 to 18) while getting balanced scoring from their veteran roster.
Big Ten Player of the Year Cassius Winston led the Spartans with 13 points and nine assists as his personal 7-0 run lifted the Spartans back into blowout territory after an early 8-0 Minnesota second-half run cut Michigan State’s lead to single digits.
Sophomore big man Xavier Tillman led Michigan State in scoring with 14 points while Kenny Goins, Matt McQuaid, Nick Ward and Aaron Henry all had nine points each.
Advancing to the Sweet 16 for the first time since a Final Four run in 2015, Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo and his players deserve a tremendous amount of credit for reaching the NCAA tournament’s second weekend. For the past three seasons, the Spartans have fallen short of lofty expectations as rosters with NBA draft picks (Denzel Valentine, Deyonta Davis, Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr.) didn’t come to play in March. Remarkably, this was the longest stretch of Izzo’s Hall-of-Fame career at Michigan State without making it to the tournament’s second weekend.
With a roster gutted with injuries to veterans like Joshua Langford and Kyle Ahrens this season, Michigan State reverted back to classic Spartans basketball as they’re one of the most tough and cohesive teams in the country. Even without bonafide pro talent, Michigan State still has an All-American floor general in Winston and a bevy of great role players who know what to do on both ends of the floor.
Michigan State will need to clean up some turnover issues (22 against Minnesota) if they want to advance. But the Spartans look like they’re in strong shape in most other ways heading into next week as they advance to face No. 3 seed LSU in a Friday Sweet 16 clash in Washington D.C.
A matchup between Big Ten and SEC regular-season champions, that game should feature some fun individual matchups to look forward to. At point guard, Winston and the Tigers’ Tremont Waters (LSU’s hero against Maryland) are both All-American-caliber players. And the matchup of LSU’s Naz Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams banging against the Spartans’ Ward and Tillman on the interior should be a fascinating frontcourt battle.
Minnesota (22-14) struggled to generate consistent offense without a healthy Jordan Murphy — reverting back to poor perimeter shooting (2-for-22 from three) after Thursday’s outlier shooting performance in a win over No. 7 seed Louisville. Murphy, a senior forward and double-double machine, played only four minutes in the first half and went scoreless before exiting until the game’s final moments with back spasms. In a touching March moment, Murphy returned to the floor for a possession with the game out of hand to receive one final curtain call as he never missed a practice or game during his four-year career at Minnesota.
Without Murphy’s consistency, the Golden Gophers only had three players score in the first half as they had a difficult time figuring out Michigan State’s stingy defense. Amir Coffey led Minnesota with 27 points as he was the only members of the Gophers able to generate his own looks. After 24 points against the Cardinals on Thursday, freshman shooter Gabe Kalscheur didn’t register a field goal as he finished with two points. Point guard Isaiah Washington was Minnesota’s only other double-figure scorer with 11 points.
Following last season’s immensely disappointing 15-17 season, Minnesota and head coach Richard Pitino deserves a lot of credit for bouncing back with a Round of 32 appearance. Some preseason polls had Minnesota finishing near the bottom of the Big Ten, with Pitino on many “Hot Seat” lists, as the Golden Gophers defied critics with a strong comeback season.
The loss of Murphy and guard Dupree McBrayer will hurt, but if Coffey returns, Minnesota will have a go-to player and some intriguing guys around him. Freshmen Daniel Oturu and Kalscheur are both double-figure scorers and other role guys like Michael Hurt and Washington could also return. If Minnesota can add another impact recruit or grad transfer, they could be in the mix for another NCAA tournament appearance in 2020.
The rare inter-conference matchup in the second round of the NCAA tournament, the Spartans and Golden Gophers played because of the Big Ten’s high number of tourney bids coupled with the selection committee’s relaxed policy if conference foes only play once during the regular season. The Spartans handily beat the Gophers at home on Feb. 9 with a 79-55 win earlier this season.