Michigan State has not survived the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend since 2015. And on Thursday in Des Moines, recent history oh so nearly repeated itself.
As late as the seven-minute mark of its March Madness opener, Sparty was scared. Scared by the 15th-seeded Bradley Braves. Scared by nightmares that came flooding back.
It was just three years ago that the Spartans fell to Middle Tennessee State, the eighth No. 2 seed to ever lose to a 15. And with Bradley leading 55-54, with six and a half minutes remaining on arena clocks, thoughts of this Michigan State team becoming the ninth were unavoidable.
As they were in a second-round loss last year, the Spartans were ice cold. They made just five 3-pointers all afternoon. After a defensive lapse during that nerve-wracking second half, Izzo snapped, unloading on freshman Aaron Henry during a timeout, calming only after being restrained by two of his players.
There were 18 lead changes. With a minute and a half remaining, there was only one Spartan above 10 points. There was trouble, until Michigan State strung together a few stops and scores. Cassius Winston hit a floater. Matt McQuaid hit a 3. Sparty, eventually, pulled away and won 76-65.
Should we be worried about Michigan State?
And in the end, it is a win. Survive and advance, as they say. Michigan State did just that, and will get conference foe Minnesota on Saturday.
But in a region featuring Duke, with a rotation truncated by multiple injuries, the Spartans looked vulnerable. Not because they have one glaring weakness, or because they will be susceptible to the Gophers or any other one opponent. Because they lack the firepower of most top teams.
They do have Winston, and Spartan nation can thank the junior for sparing it the embarrassment of another 2-15 upset. He’s a top-five player in the nation. He had 26 points.
“I’ve been riding him like Secretariat,” Izzo said in his postgame on-court interview with CBS. “The poor kid.”
But as for the rest? Nick Ward, still recovering from a hand injury, made just one field goal for the third consecutive game. Kenny Goins really struggled on the offensive end. There is no secondary creator to share catalyst responsibilities. The result, at times, can be a grind. Thursday was one of those times.
“I thought they played tougher than we did,” Izzo said of Bradley. “We looked tired.”
Now the Spartans have 48 hours to recuperate and prepare for an opponent that knows them well. They’ll be favored, and would be favored over either LSU or Maryland in the Sweet 16 as well. But if the ambitions are grander – which they are? Thursday was an inauspicious start.
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