- Associated Press - Thursday, March 17, 2016

ST. LOUIS (AP) - Michigan State is making its 19th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. That alone should strike fear into the Spartans’ opening-round opponent.

Coach Tom Izzo knows the pedigree won’t do much good in Friday’s matchup against Middle Tennessee State. Players realize that this time of the year there can be no off games.

“We’re in a baseball city,” Izzo said Thursday as his second-seeded Spartans prepared for the Blue Raiders. “Pitchers don’t pitch, hitters don’t hit, you go home. That’s kind of the way it is.”

Middle Tennessee State coaches and players will do their best to just play their game.

“Yeah, they have a lot of history,” said junior forward Reggie Upshaw, the team’s leading rebounder and second-leading scorer. “But I mean we’ve played against great competition all year.”

Not quite like this, though.

Michigan State (29-5) has won 13 of 14 and took the Big Ten tourney title despite poor shooting, winning its semifinal and the final by a combined seven points. The Spartans have perhaps the best player in the nation in Denzel Valentine, who is averaging 19.4 points, 7.6 points and 7.6 assists per game.

Valentine was named most outstanding player of the conference tournament, leading the team in scoring, rebounding and assists all three games.

He knows better than to count on an easy ride to the second round against either Dayton or Syracuse.

“They won their conference. I mean, they look pretty good on film,” Valentine said. “So we’re going to have to bring it from Day 1.”

Middle Tennessee (24-9) hasn’t won an NCAA game since 1989, but has a bit of experience against higher-level competition. The Blue Raiders beat Auburn in overtime and have won six in a row entering the tourney. Like Michigan State, they won their conference tournament.

Coach Kermit Davis said he told players to imagine they were going to play a pickup game, and added “Every college player thinks you’re going to win the pickup game.”

“We understand who we’re playing,” Davis said. “I do think they have a quiet confidence, but they also understand the challenge.”

The winner plays either Dayton or Syracuse in the second round. Some things to watch for:

BACKING IT UP: This is the third time Michigan State has been a No. 2 seed and the first two times worked out really well, a title in 1979 and national runner-up finish in 2009. The Spartans have a strong history of performing in St. Louis, defeating Northern Iowa and Tennessee in 2010 to advance to the Final Four in 2010. They played in St. Louis’ Final Four in 2005, losing to North Carolina in the semifinals, and advanced to the Final Four in 1999.

OUTSIDE LOOKS: Middle Tennessee sophomore Giddy Potts leads the nation making 50 percent of his 3-pointers and Michigan State senior Bryn Forbes is second at 48 percent. Forbes was cold in the Big Ten tourney, going 4 of 17 from long range. Valentine and Matt Costello, on the interview podium alongside Forbes, said there was no question Forbes is the best shooter in the country.

“He’s not allowed to answer,” added Costello, the team’s leading rebounder. “He can’t be too cocky.”

Michigan State has made a school-record 310 3-pointers, averaging 9.2 per game, and leads the nation with 43 percent accuracy.

SLOW IT DOWN: Middle Tennessee scored 99 points in the Conference USA semifinals and beat Old Dominion 55-53 in the tourney final. A deliberate pace limiting fast break points is the underdog’s best bet as a No. 15 seed seeking an upset.

“As far as scoring 90, I’m pretty sure that won’t be one of those kind of games,” said Upshaw, the CUSA tournament MVP.

UNFAMILIAR FOES: The schools have met just once, with Michigan State winning in 1977 behind Greg Kelser, who had 18 points and seven rounds, and freshman Magic Johnson, who had 12 point and five assists. There’s one common opponent this season - Michigan State beat Florida Atlantic in its season opener and Middle Tennessee State swept the season series from FAU in C-USA play.

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