Final Four 2019: Five reasons why Michigan State will win the NCAA Tournament Championship
The Spartans are the closest thing to a blue blood we have in the Final Four
At several points during the season, Michigan State was scratched off the list of national title contenders. There have been different reasons for setting an expectation short of the Final Four, from injuries to key players all the way to its Selection Sunday draw of landing in the East Regional with No. 1 overall seed Duke. Throughout the year, the Spartans have ranked as one of the most efficient teams in the country, overcome the injuries and finished with a share of the Big Ten regular season championship, a Big Ten Tournament title and an impressive 3-0 record against rival Michigan.
There's a resiliency with this Michigan State team has become a cornerstone of its success in the NCAA Tournament. It's a mental toughness with defense and rebounding on the forefront of their minds, and a Hall of Fame coach leading the way on the sideline. What on paper might not have "looked" like a national title team against the likes of Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky is the closest thing we have to a blue blood in the Final Four, so maybe it's time to change our minds on what a national championship contender "looks" like.
Here are five reasons to believe that Michigan State is going to cut down the nets in Minneapolis:
1. Cassius Winston is the playmaking guard that team's often need to win a title: The Big Ten Player of the Year has elevated himself among his peers when it comes to individual performances in this tournament, but it hasn't just been the statistics. Both Mike Krzyzewski and Tom Izzo -- individually after Sunday's game -- made the same point about Winston: the junior point guard has the innate ability to understand exactly what play needs to be made at certain points in the game in order to lead his team to victory. Sometimes it's a jump shot, sometimes it's driving to the rim and often times it's setting up a teammate, but it's exactly the play Michigan State needs at different pivot points in the flow of the game.
After a mostly dominant first half against LSU, Michigan State had a few lackluster possessions that helped the Tigers make a run to climb back into the game. There was no panic, Izzo said, because he felt like Winston was in total control -- despite a handful of turnovers. Winston finished that game with 17 points and eight assists, but the fact that he's able to be the coach on the floor is what makes Michigan State better than its opponents in crucial moments of these high-pressure tournament games.
2. Michigan State is the most versatile team in Minneapolis: Three of the four Final Four participants have firmly established identities. Virginia has its pace and patience on offense and elite pack-line defense. Texas Tech, similarly, relies on a tenacious defensive effort that suffocates its opponents with Jarrett Culver as the spark plug on offense. Auburn has relied much less on defense but is as dangerous as anyone in the country shooting 3-pointers and uses an up-tempo pace to power its high-octane offense.
Michigan State, on the other hand, is much tougher to pin down because it has so many different ways to win. Sparty can play the slow down game and win, as it did with Michigan three times this year. They can also get out and run a little if needed, something the team showed when it jumped all over LSU early in their Sweet 16 win. The man-to-man defense is so relentless that teams often need to use much of the shot clock just to get a shot, but when Michigan State has the ball there's no obvious intention to wind the clock down. The stylistic contrasts and strength-against-strength narratives are powering the matchup analysis, and Michigan State has already proven it has the ability to win any kind of game its opponent wants to play.
3. Multiple X-factors: In addition to being versatile in the way they win, the Spartans have plenty of options for potential game-breakers beyond Cassius Winston. Kenny Goins, a senior and former walk-on, was ready when his name was called for the game-winning shot against Duke. Matt McQuaid, another senior, has a fearlessness and warrior mentality that has him playing much bigger than his 6-foot-5, 200-pound frame would suggest -- question the strength and end up on a highlight-reel dunk.
Xavier Tillman had a great weekend in D.C. and was named to the East Regional all-tournament team. Aaron Henry has found confidence in strong postseason performances during this run. Opponents will likely start their efforts by trying to limit Winston, but you can go through the starting lineup and on to sixth man Nick Ward -- coming off the bench since his return from injury -- to find potential X-factors that can power Michigan State to a win.
4. Tom Izzo has a major coaching edge against the field: While three coaches are making their Final Four debuts, Izzo is coming off one of his most impressive coaching jobs in leading the Spartans through LSU and Duke and making his eighth appearance in the Final Four with hopes of capturing a second national title. Both LSU and Duke held talent and athleticism advantages over the Spartans, but the aftermath of both games had the Spartans players giving plenty of credit to the coaching staff for putting them in a position to win with an excellent game plan and scouting report of the opponent. Against LSU, it was all about cut-outs and rebounding -- so much so that Izzo put signs all over the team hotel and the locker room -- and against Duke it was a full-team effort to deny Zion Williamson the ball and wall of RJ Barrett from driving to the basket. After the clip of Izzo coming down hard on Aaron Henry went viral and sparked a national conversation that extended well beyond college basketball, Henry went on to have his best game of the year in the Sweet 16.
5. A winning tradition can matter for mental toughness: There is something about the belief that a team should win, or was meant to win, that I think matters when the best teams in the country are fighting for survival in this tournament. That winner's mentality has to first be established by success, but that's the reason why it continues to power more success. Some of that certainly comes on the recruiting trail, where successful seasons lead to better recruiting and better players are able to sustain that success. But this Michigan State team is the opposite, as its a team that believes it belongs and deserves to win because of a "Spartan Legacy" that continues to take hold. Magic Johnson, Mateen Cleaves and Charlie Bell were with this team in Washington, D.C. and you can bet that more former champions and Michigan State legends are going to join the party in Minneapolis this weekend. When those program legends are able to communicate both what it takes to win a championship and that this 2019 Spartans team has that potential, it infuses a winners mentality that can be the difference going up against one of these programs that is making some level of history by just reaching the Final Four.
Who wins Texas Tech vs. Michigan State? And which side of the spread hits in more than 50 percent of simulations? Visit SportsLine now to see which side of the Texas Tech vs. Michigan State spread you should back, all from an advanced computer model that's up over $4,000 the past two seasons.
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