INDIANAPOLIS — Michigan State and coach Tom Izzo are in an unfamiliar position.
Last time there was an NCAA Tournament, the Spartans reached the Final Four in 2019 — the most recent of eight trips under Izzo.
This time, Michigan State needed a late surge just to get into the Big Dance, and they’ll have to win an extra game, too. The Spartans (15-12) will face UCLA (17-9) on Thursday in a First Four matchup of No. 11 seeds in the East Region.
Izzo is just thankful to be playing, all things considered.
“You know and I know that three weeks ago nobody gave us a chance, including probably most of you and probably even me,” Izzo said. “We fought our way through, and that took some courage and guts, and I’m proud of them for that.”
It’s fitting that the Spartans will have just a little bit tougher road ahead than most of the qualifiers. Even in the most difficult of years, Michigan State faced extra challenges.
Izzo contracted COVID-19 early in the season, yet the Spartans opened with six straight wins. They started Big Ten play with three straight losses on their way to dropping nine of 13 overall, but they eventually bounced back late in the season with victories over Ohio State, Michigan and Illinois — which all finished in the top seven of the final AP poll.
Now, the Spartans will need to win Thursday’s matchup in West Lafayette to reach the final 64 and play No. 6 seed BYU on Saturday. That winner will face No. 3 seed Texas or No. 14 seed Abilene Christian on Monday.
“I’m not worried about facing anybody in this tournament,” Izzo said. “I don’t feel comfortable with UCLA and BYU or Texas, but I don’t feel afraid of UCLA, BYU or Texas or anybody else because we truly, truly have played the best teams in the country on a night-in and night-out basis, and especially in the last two to three weeks.”
With all the complications this season, Izzo is simplifying the situation.
“I still want to win the weekend,” he said. “The weekend just became a little longer. So, in this year of the pandemic, in this year of 2020-21, I might as well experience some more new things.”
Aaron Henry, a junior forward from Indianapolis, leads the Spartans with 15.3 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. Joey Hauser, another junior forward averages 9.7 points and 5.7 rebounds. Senior guard Joshua Langford averages 9.6 points per contest.
Michigan State has had 11 players start at least five games. UCLA coach Mick Cronin is impressed with how Izzo has made it work.
“He’s got a different kind of team this year because he’s played many, many different lineups — they can change at the drop of a hat and go with different guys, so there’s a lot of personnel for our guys to digest because they play so many guys,” he said. “Some of that is him searching, and some of it’s strategy to match up with his opponent.”
Cronin said as long as Izzo is around, the Spartans are a threat.
“It means we’ve got to beat a Hall of Fame coach,” Cronin said. “One thing about coach Izzo — the reason he has survived so long and he’s had such a great career is that they’re never easily defeated. He refuses to give in. That’s why he was able to rally his team.”
UCLA counters with a trio of sophomore guards. Johnny Juzang has averaged 14 points per game in his first season since transferring from Kentucky. Jaime Jaquez Jr. averages 11.7 points and 6.0 rebounds and Tyger Campbell averages 10.5 points and 5.6 assists.
Izzo likes how they play for Cronin.
“He’s got kids that have bought in, and I have a lot of respect for Mick and the way he has done it and doing it in an environment that’s not as easy to do it in,” Izzo said. “He brings a smash mouth kind of team and it will be a different team than maybe some we’ve played out West.”
WICHITA STATE vs DRAKE
Drake and Wichita State will play the most important of their 152 games against each other on Thursday and the winner advances to face No. 6 seed USC on Saturday.
Drake is a longtime member of the Missouri Valley Conference. Wichita State competed in the MVC for decades before leaving for the American Athletic Conference in 2017. The schools played a home-and-home series in all but two seasons during a 72-year stretch that began in 1945-46.
Drake coach Darian DeVries played college ball at MVC member Northern Iowa and was a longtime assistant at Creighton – also a former MVC program.
“I’m very familiar with them over the years as a player and a coach,” DeVries said. “It’s certainly an exciting match-up. I watched them the other day in their game against Cincinnati. They won their league, they’re a talented team and have always had good teams.”
Drake (25-4) opened the season with 18 consecutive wins and ShanQuan Hemphill leads the way with 14.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game.
Isaac Brown took over as Wichita State’s interim coach early in the season. The Shockers (16-5) started the season with a 1-2 record but found their way. They won eight straight late in the season, including a victory over Houston on Feb. 18. Tyson Etienne, the co-American Athletic Conference player of the year, leads the way with 17 points per game. Alterique Gilbert adds 10.3.
NORFOLK STATE vs APPALACHIAN STATE
Norfolk State (16-7) is back for the first time since 2012, when the Spartans upset No. 2 seed Missouri before losing to Florida. The Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference champion has won six straight and hasn’t lost since Feb. 8. Devante Carter leads the way with 15.5 points and 5.3 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game.
Appalachian State (17-11) is in the tournament for the first time since 2000 and seeks its first win. The Mountaineers won one game the entire month of February before running off four victories in four days to claim the automatic bid.
Adrian Delph leads the way with 13.2 points per game. Michael Almonacy was the Sun Belt tournament MVP after scoring 32 points in the championship game win over Georgia State. Justin Forrest averages 10 points per contest and has been strong the past four games.
The winner will play No. 1 overall seed Gonzaga.
MOUNT ST. MARY’S vs TEXAS SOUTHERN
Mount St. Mary’s (12-10) won the automatic berth out of the Northeast Conference. Damien Chong Qui, a 5-foot-8, 155-pound guard, leads the way with 15.3 points and 5.5 assists per game.
The Mountaineers were below .500 as recently as the last week of February. They upset Bryant in the conference title game, giving the Bulldogs their only home loss of the season.
Southwestern Athletic Conference champion Texas Southern (16-8) seeks its second-ever NCAA Tournament win. Michael Weathers leads the team with 16.5 points per game. John Walker III averages 11.9 and Joirdon Karl Nicholas averages 11.3.
The winner will play No. 1 seed Michigan on Saturday.