6:30 PM EST, TBS – Line: Michigan State -2, Over/Under: 137.5
With the opening weekend of the 2023 Men’s NCAA Tournament in the books, we’re off to the Sweet Sixteen where one of the tourney’s usual suspects faces off against one of its dark horses, as the seventh-seeded Michigan State Spartans battle the third-seeded Kansas State Wildcats in this East Regional Semifinal from Madison Square Garden in New York City. Few things are inevitable in life, including death, taxes, and Michigan State (21-12, 11-8 in Big Ten) performing well in the NCAA Tournament (not necessarily in that order). Indeed, to say that the road to March has been difficult for the Spartans would be a gross understatement, particularly following the harrowing mass shooting that rocked the campus back on February 13th, killing three students and injuring seven more. However, leave it to (Head Coach) Tom Izzo to galvanize the faithful and provide them with a beacon of hope, as he has now guided his charges to their FIFTEENTH Sweet Sixteen under his watch, putting him level with fellow greats of the sport, including John Wooden, Adolph Rupp, and Bob Knight for sixth all-time. Of course, with many of his contemporaries (Krzyzewski, Williams, Boeheim, and Wright) walking away from the game over the past two seasons, the 68-year-old is in many ways one of the last true elder statesmen of college hoops, with the Hall of Famer reminding us of his postseason credentials once more over the last weekend. In his twenty-eight years leading the Spartans, Izzo (pictured above) has taken them twenty-five consecutive NCAA Tournaments, including EIGHT Final Fours and a pair of trips to the National Championship Game, of which they cut down the nets in 2000. However, that only begins to describe what this guy has done in the month of March, for with last weekend’s victory over Marquette (which we’ll get into very shortly), he set a pair of records in the process, earning his SIXTEENTH tourney win as the lower-seeded team, while advancing to the regional semifinals as a Five Seed or lower. Simply put, nobody in the game is better at navigating the treacherous landscape of the NCAA Tournament than Izzo, whose teams always resemble his leadership. When we last saw Michigan State, they pulled an upset of (Two Seed) Marquette in a convincing 69-60 victory in their second-round matchup. This one had all the hallmarks of a Spartans’ tournament win, as they played stellar defense in relegating the Eagles to 38.5% shooting from the field, including a dismal 9-of-25 within the arc (36.0%), owned the glass (36-29), created easy opportunities with sixteen forced turnovers, and controlled the tempo by getting to the line twenty-three times. Indeed, Izzo’s outfit outscored the opposition by ten points from the charity stripe alone, while battering them in the paint, where they earned a +26 advantage. Sure, they shot a dreadful 2-of-16 from downtown (12.5%) and they committed more turnovers (10) than assists (8), but there may not be any team in the country that is more adept at winning ugly than Sparty & Co. (Senir Guard) Tyson Walker was stellar, leading the Big Ten denizens with twenty-three points on 8-of-17 shooting (47.1%) and 7-of-8 from the line (87.5%), while (Marquette Transfer) Joey Hauser posted a double-double with fourteen points and ten rebounds along with a perfect 7-of-7 from the stripe (100.0%). From a betting perspective, Michigan State is a middling 17-16 against the spread this season, though has covered the number in six of their last ten games regardless of the venue. They’re 4-6 against the spread over their last ten outings away from East Lansing, though have really handled their business when branded as a favorite by the oddsmakers, with seven covers in their last ten such contests and have won nine of them outright. However, the Spartans are only 1-4 against the spread in their last five games following a straight-up victory. With a win tonight, Izzo’s troops will have advanced to their TENTH Elite Eight under the watch of the Hall of Famer, and their first since marching to the Final Four in 2019.
Meanwhile, the success of their opponent in this tournament may not come as a surprise to anyone, but the same cannot be said about Kansas State (25-9, 11-7 in Big XII), who have been arguably the most pleasant surprise in the country this season. After relieving Bruce Weber of his duties following three consecutive losing campaigns, the Wildcats weren’t expected to do much in 2022-2023, even after luring away (Head Coach) Jerome Tang from (conference rival) Baylor, where he spent the previous two decades, including a key role on the bench during their National Championship run in 2021. Unranked coming into this season, the ‘Cats got off to a stunning 15-1 start in which they knocked off the likes of Texas and Baylor along the way before they were finally ranked. So, how has Tang (pictured above) performed such a quick turnaround, you ask? Well, the 56-year-old hit the Transfer Portal HARD last Summer, completely remaking his rotation with FIVE of his top-six players arriving from another program, including (Senior Forward) Keyontae Johnson, who many thought would never play again after collapsing on the hardwood during a game against Florida State back on December 12th, 2020. Johnson would eventually rejoin the team as a coach, playing just FIVE games over the next two years before making an honorary start on Senior Day. With that said, there was clearly more basketball left in his future, for since arriving in Manhattan he has posted career-highs in several categories, including points (17.5), rebounds (7.0), and assists (2.2) as a major fixture in what has been the Big XII’s most efficient offense this season. KSU ranked first or second in the conference in a plethora of areas, including points (76.9), three-point field goals (7.6), free-throws (17.8), free-throw attempts (23.1), free-throw percentage (77.1%), assists (16.0), and turnovers (14.1). When we last saw Kansas State, they dismissed one of the true bluebloods of the sport in an all-feline affair, besting (Six Seed) Kentucky, 75-69 in their second-round matchup. It was a strong offensive performance from the residents of the Lil’ Apple, who shot a solid 48.1% from the field, including a punishing 21-of-33 from within the arc (63.6%), while being rewarded for their aggressive play with twenty-two free-throw attempts, of which they netted eighteen (81.8%). (Senior Guard) Markquis Nowell led the effort in this regard, with ten of his game-high twenty-seven points coming from the charity stripe, while also accounting for all but two of his side’s five three-pointers. His performance made up for a disappointing one from the aforementioned Johnson, who struggled against Kentucky’s bigs, finishing with thirteen points on just 5-of-14 shooting (35.7%), with as many turnovers as assists (3). Speaking of turnovers, this proved to be the biggest difference-maker in the game, as Tang’s outfit harassed their counterparts throughout the contest, forcing sixteen turnovers while yielding just twelve assists, which turned into a plethora of opportunities for the Wildcats in transition. (Junior Forward) Nae’Qwan Tomlin was essential to their effort, going 6-of-8 from the field (75.0%), along with three offensive rebounds and four blocks, negating one of the advantages that their opponent was expected to have. If the JuCo Transfer can keep playing like that, then the sky is indeed the limit in this tourney for the ‘Cats. From a betting perspective, Kansas State is a stellar 22-12 against the spread this season, while covering the line in six of their last ten outings regardless of the venue. The Wildcats are 4-6 against the spread over their last ten trips away from Manhattan, while matching that mark within that same sample size as an underdog. With that said, momentum has been on their side of late, for Tang’s troops have covered four of their last five contests following a win against the spread, while also raising their level of play to match that of their competition, with five covers in their last six affairs versus opponents with a win percentage above .600, which is obviously the case tonight. With a victory tonight, the ‘Cats will be off to their ninth Elite Eight in school history and their first since 2018.