(3) Michigan State vs (14) Valparaiso
(3) Michigan State Spartans
The Spartans (25-8, 13-5) are making their 16th straight NCAA Tournament after playing the fifth-most difficult schedule in the country and finishing the regular season with a top 10 RPI. This year, Spartans head coach Tom Izzo has a well-rounded team that can hurt the opposition from all over. They’re led by their backcourt of Keith Appling and Gary Harris, but they’re just as talented on the frontline where they have plenty of size and athleticism in Branden Dawson, Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne. The Spartans went 4-6 against the RPI top 25, with their best wins coming against Kansas, Michigan and Ohio State. Their worst loss came at the hands of Connecticut, who was not tournament eligible but a RPI top 50 team nonetheless. The Spartans are stiff defensively and actively play the passing lanes, accumulating 8.2 steals on average. The three-point shot is not a big part of their offense. They get in trouble when they settle for it and don’t take care of the basketball like they should. As talented and battle tested as they are, the Spartans will not be an easy out.
(14) Valparaiso Crusaders
With Butler now a member of the Atlantic 10, the Horizon League’s guaranteed bid to the NCAA Tournament was up for grabs and the Crusaders (26-7, 13-3) seized the opportunity to make their first appearance in the big dance since 2004. The Crusaders are a high-scoring team, consistently playing in the 70s. They’re very capable of hurting teams from deep, but struggle to take care of the ball. They give it away 14 times on average, something you cannot do if you hope to advance in the tournament. The Crusaders have a star in senior forward Ryan Broekhoff, who will have the opportunity to show the country just how good he is on the big stage. He enters the tournament averaging 15.9 points, 7.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists per contest. Senior big man Kevin Van Wijk is another guy to keep an eye on as he has been solid throughout the year. Crusaders coach Bryce Drew will play as many as nine guys on most nights, all of which warrant respect offensively. His team went 0-2 against the RPI top 50 and 24 of their wins came against teams outside of the top 100. For the Crusaders to survive and advance they have to take care of the basketball and continue to score at a high rate.
HOOPSWORLD’s Pick: Michigan State. The Spartans will win the battle on the frontline and the game as a result.