By Adam Biggers
If you forecast the Michigan State Spartans in the 2011 Final Four, you may have been a bit on the optimistic side. Well, you were probably closer to delusional if you thought the Spartans were among the four best teams in the country a year ago. They were uncharacteristically bounced from the opening round by UCLA after struggling to secure a bid to March Madness—it wasn't Michigan State's finest season.
But this year is different.
Whether you're a die-hard Spartans fan, or a college basketball expert, the 2012 Spartans appear as a championship-caliber team to an array of different fans and groups. And it's OK to project the Spartans to land in the 2012 Final Four in New Orleans because they are indeed one of the top four to five teams in the nation. ESPN's Hubert Davis sees the Spartans losing to North Carolina in the title game while his colleague, Digger Phelps, believes Michigan State will beat Kentucky for the championship.
The Spartans' past track record certainly suggests that they'll be a team to contend with during March Madness. They're fresh off a 68-64 conference title win over Ohio State. which they shared the Big Ten regular-season title with (and Michigan). The Spartans then earned a No. 1 seed in the West Region, played in Phoenix, because of their resume.
If Michigan State isn't primed for the tournament, I don't know what team is.
Michigan State boasts senior star Draymond Green, who won the Big Ten Player of the Year Award and is considered one of the best players in all of college basketball. Not since former Wake Forest star Tim Duncan in 1997 has a player from a major conference averaged 15 points, 10 rebounds and three assists per game. But Green did it this year.
In fact, other than Kansas' Thomas Robinson and Kentucky's Anthony Davis, there aren't many players with the ability or resume that Green possesses. That's a definite plus for a title-hungry team like the Spartans.
Review the Spartans' individual and team accomplishments thus far—it's perfectly logical to think that a team that played the toughest schedule, won arguably the most competitive conference's regular-season and tournament titles and boasts one of the nation's elite players could go all the way.
In 2010-11, just getting in the tournament and extending its 14 straight postseason appearances seemed to be good enough for Michigan State. However, this year's team isn't last year's Michigan State. It's a more cohesive unit capable of competing alongside the NCAA's best teams.
Take a quick glance at the West Region bracket. Though it is challenging, it's not too much to expect Michigan State to emerge from it. Yes, Missouri is a great team, and so are Marquette and Florida. St. Louis and Long Beach State are formidable adversaries, too.
Each of the aforementioned has its own particular strength. But Michigan State, although lacking a bit of depth, seems to be the most complete unit—one could argue that Missouri is—in the West. The Spartans have showed they can dictate the tempo of a game, go big or small, crash the boards and be successful under nearly any condition.
The Spartans have a strong corps of guards, led by Keith Appling and Brandon Wood. With both at their peaks, Michigan State could be a difficult team to defend off the dribble and from the perimeter.
Centers Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix each had respectable Big Ten Tournaments and possess the ability to control the offensive and defensive glass. Rebounding, as it has been in the past, is one of the Spartans' strength this season. They posted a Big Ten-best 38 boards per game, good for 26th nationally.
Of course, the past is the past. But if you're into coincidence, remember this: The last time the Spartans won the Big Ten Tournament, they won the national title (2000). Each of the previous three times the Spartans earned a No. 1 seed in The Big Dance, they went on to reach the Final Four (99-01). And they have this Izzo guy on the sideline—just food for thought.
Video: Big Ten Player of the Year Draymond Green highlight reel.