Mar 18, 2012

Michigan State Spartans outlast St. Louis Billikens, advance to 10th Sweet 16 under Tom Izzo

Photo: Associated Press

By Adam Biggers

After Friday's physical 61-54 win over the Memphis Tigers, the No. 8-seeded team in the West Region, St. Louis Billikens forward Brian Conklin said his team's game plan was going to be the same Sunday against the top-seeded Michigan State Spartans.

"We’re going to muck up the game like we did yesterday and play dirty basketball,” Conklin said.

And the ninth-seeded Billikens executed their strategy to near perfection Sunday in Columbus, only to fall short to the Draymond Green-led Spartans, 65-61.

St. Louis fought as hard as legendary heavyweight boxer Joe Louis during the loss, creating opportunities to score points at the line and maximizing an inside advantage due to the absence of Spartans 6-foot-5 freshman Branden Dawson, who is sidelined with an ACL injury.

St. Louis' Dwayne Evans scored just seven points, but four of them came late and in the paint -- where he would have likely been checked by Dawson.

Blow after blow, hit after hit, St. Louis appeared ready to stop Michigan State in its tracks. But with 1:37 remaining, Keith Appling hit a 3-pointer from the right corner -- assisted by Green, who finished with 16 points, 13 rebounds, six assists and two steals -- to give Michigan State a 58-51 lead.

Although coach Rick Majerus' Billikens scrapped to the end, they couldn't wear down the Spartans, who are headed to their 10th Sweet 16 under coach Tom Izzo. Michigan State faces the fourth-seeded Louisville Cardinals on Thursday in Phoenix for a trip to the Elite 8.

To expect the Spartans to completely ravish the Billikens would have been illogical, considering they topped an athletic Memphis team just two days ago -- a team most had slated to face Michigan State, which had just one full day of rest after Friday's 87-69 win over LIU-Brooklyn.

However, most would agree that St. Louis turned in one of the gutsiest performances of the 2012 NCAA Tournament. The Billikens just wouldn't go away, hitting late 3-pointers to keep the game interesting and using timeouts to extend it. Majerus wasn't going to fade out, and he did an admirable job managing what little time he had left.

The Spartans probably didn't deserve to win Sunday. But then again, who really "deserves" to win in March Madness? Nothing is a given, just ask Duke and Missouri, both No. 2 seeds which fell to 15th-seeded teams over the weekend.

Sunday's win raises a couple questions regarding Michigan State's probability of going to the Final Four.

1.) How will the Spartans respond if they run into another team that poses a mismatch, especially at the three and four positions? Louisville has seven players as tall, or taller, than Dawson. One could expect that Cardinals coach Rick Pitino will use that perceived advantage against the Spartans, who have five regulars that are 6-5 or taller.

2.) Are the Spartans capable of escaping with another close win? Well, that could be debated. A team as talented as Michigan State is most definitely equipped to fight through games like Sunday's duel with St. Louis. However, the Spartans won't have the luxury of doing it against one of the "little guys."

If Michigan State gets past Louisville, it then has to prepare for either Marquette -- which has 6-6 Jae Crowder, a challenge to guard, to say the least -- or Florida. Playing like they did Sunday -- shooting just 64 percent from the line and narrowly winning the rebound battle, 29-25 -- won't be enough for the Spartans against the Gators or Golden Eagles.

Follow Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81.

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