WHEN IN DOUBT, pick the Spartans. This has been true for many years, as they have played in seven of the last 17 Final Fours. It is especially true this year, because there is no dominant team, and Michigan State won't have to rely on March magic to win the national title. This is one of the most complete teams of Tom Izzo's 21-year tenure.
The Spartans have the country's best all-around player (6'5" senior Denzel Valentine), its best tournament coach (Izzo), Final Four experience (in 2015), a clutch shooter (6'3" senior Bryn Forbes), an athletic wing who keeps improving (6'3" junior Eron Harris), a potential lottery pick in the paint (6'10" freshman Deyonta Davis) and a tough, skilled 6'9" senior forward (Matt Costello).
Izzo says, "There comes a time when the toughest team's going to win." It can take him months to instill that toughness in a team, and the process can be ugly. Some of his teams look lost in January, only to rise up in March.
Michigan State did hit a short rough patch this year, but of its five regular-season losses, three came by a point, and another occurred at powerful Iowa when Valentine had not yet returned to full strength after having left knee surgery on Dec. 21. Izzo has not had to teach Don't Be a Knucklehead 101, and he has not had to explain to his players that teammates are not enemies. The chemistry has been outstanding all year.
Valentine shifted to point guard in mid-January after Lourawls (Tum Tum) Nairn Jr. went out for a month because of plantar fasciitis in his right foot, and the offense started humming. The worst thing you can say about these Spartans doubles as a reason to believe in their upside: They have not defended like a classic Izzo team. But Valentine has become a superior defender, Harris is improving, Davis can protect the rim ... and really now: Who thinks a talented Izzo team won't defend in March? If that's the biggest concern about Michigan State, just pencil in six wins and a second championship for Izzo.
Assist rate for Valentine, second best in the nation. MSU gets assists on 72.3% of its baskets, tops in D-I.
Three-pointers hit by Forbes against Rutgers on March 2, a Big Ten record. He is fifth in the nation with a 50.5 3FG%.
Percentage of their missed shots the Spartans rebound, best in the Big Ten and resulting in 12.3 points per game.
They are very, very unselfish. Guys do a great job of buying into roles. They compete on the defensive end as well as anybody in the country. If they have a weakness, it's that they don't score consistently in the paint. Tum Tum gives them more pace in transition, but when he's not in, it makes them better because then they have multiple scorers on the perimeter. Harris is not a great defender, but Izzo always has that one guy he struggles with throughout the year, and then at the end they fall in love again. The most underrated player in the Big Ten is Costello.