Last year, Tom Izzo’s team made a surprise run in the month of March. It was the most unlikely of Final Fours for a coach who has been to a few in his time – in fact, until a year earlier, every four-year player for him made it to at least one Final Four, a remarkable fact. If Michigan State is one of the last four teams this season, there’s no reason to be surprised. The Spartans just closed out a great month of November.
Michigan State beat Providence 77-64 to take home the Wooden Legacy Classic title, pulling away late in what was a tight game throughout. A team that has been led by Denzel Valentine got a nice game from Bryn Forbes and Devonta Davis to support the star senior, who was good but not as stellar as he’s been – and that’s okay. Valentine might win Player of the Year if the award were given out right now, but that doesn’t mean he’ll be other-worldly every night out – just most of them.
This Michigan State team is made right in Izzo’s mold. It’s a blue collar team full of underrated and tough players who have had nothing given to them. This isn’t a team with McDonald’s All-Americans coming off the bench, though it’s far from a team full of borderline Division II talent. They will have more pure talent next year since they’re in the midst of an excellent recruiting haul. This team has balance, they have a star who was no one’s pick to be one coming out of high school, and they have a coach who knows a thing or two about winning. Izzo’s teams are known for toughness, and this team has it.
Most figured this team would be pretty good this year, but many of the same pundits probably didn’t pick the Spartans to win their own conference. That says a lot about Maryland, the team likely picked ahead of them by any who didn’t pick Michigan State first. After beating Kansas in the Champions Classic and then putting up three double-digit wins in Fullerton, two against potential NCAA Tournament teams, it’s clear the Spartans have to be in the conversation as the team to beat in the Big Ten. And that translates into making a deep run come March.
East Lansing is a pretty good place to be these days. The football team is headed to Indianapolis and could be in the College Football Playoff, and the basketball team is clearly very good once again. They’ll take on Louisville – the team they beat to get to the Final Four last season – in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge next, and more challenges follow. This team is well-equipped to manage those challenges.
Elsewhere in the Wooden Legacy, Arizona took third place with a 68-59 win over Boise State, holding Bronco star guard Anthony Drmic in check as he had eight points on just 1-12 shooting. Evansville finished fifth after beating UC Irvine 75-56, and Santa Clara took seventh place by taking care of Boston College 62-45 behind a double-double from Nate Kratch (12 points, 10 rebounds).
Xavier crushed Dayton 90-61 to win the AdvoCare Invitational and continue its best start in four years. Monmouth was as big a winner as anyone there this weekend, as they will go back to New Jersey with a 2-1 mark in the event after beating USC 83-73 behind 27 points from Justin Robinson. Alabama got the biggest win in the early going of the Avery Johnson era by beating Notre Dame 74-73 on a buzzer-beater, taking fifth place.
Wichita State had a weekend to forget in Florida, losing all three games in the AdvoCare Invitational, including an 84-61 thumping at the hands of Iowa on Sunday. In light of that, the news that Anton Grady will fly home with the team is great news in more ways than one. After Sunday’s game, the school released a statement where he gave a “big thank you” to family, friends and team supporters for the reaction to his scary injury the night before. Doctors believe he suffered a spinal cord concussion in Friday’s loss to Alabama, but fortunately found no sign of trauma there. The Shockers, already without star guard Fred VanVleet and freshman guard Landry Shamet due to injury, now hope to get healthy.
Wisconsin continues to have some growing pains thus far, at least on the bottom line. We knew this wasn’t going to be easy, and Sunday’s 65-48 loss at Oklahoma is the latest. Ryan Spangler had a big game with 20 points and 14 rebounds for the Sooners, and the Badgers are now 4-3 with their win over VCU the only significant win, and they’re running out of chances in non-conference play. Still, bet against this team – with the coach they have – finishing in the top four of the Big Ten at your peril.
It’s a significantly reduced slate, as most of the in-season tournaments are in the books. Some notable matchups are on tap, however.
- The Big Ten/ACC Challenge gets going with Wake Forest at Rutgers and Clemson at Minnesota.
- A battle of quietly undefeated teams is on tap in Eugene as Fresno State visits Oregon.
- Kentucky hosts Illinois State.
- LSU hits the road to play at College of Charleston, a rare example of a high-major playing in a mid-major’s gym.