Michigan State (20-14) vs. Kansas (29-4)
Free Press sports writer Chris Solari scouts Sunday’s second-round NCAA tournament game (5:15 p.m., CBS) between Midwest Region No. 9-seed Michigan State and No. 1-seed Kansas:
The Jayhawks’ four-guard lineup is athletic and aggressive. It starts with senior point guard Frank Mason III, who averages 20.2 points and has scored 20-plus 20 times between hitting from deep and slashing to the basket. Freshman Josh Jackson, a Detroit product who considered MSU, attacks the rim with ferocity and rebounds with tenacity in the vein of a thinner Miles Bridges. He averages 16.4 points and 7.2 rebounds, second-best in both categories for Kansas. Devonte’ Graham (13.2 points) and Svi Mykhailiuk (9.8) are three-point threats who free things up inside for Jackson and Mason to drive. All four average 27.6 minutes or more, with all but Mykhailiuk playing 30-plus. Junior Tum Tum Nairn continues to start at the point for MSU, but both senior Alvin Ellis (seven points, seven rebounds) and freshman Joshua Langford (13 points on 5-for-10 shooting) are coming off strong showings against Miami and must replicate their defensive efforts in back-to-back games. Edge: Kansas.
The 6-foot-8 Jackson is more of a wing, but the battle between him and good friend and fellow freshman Bridges could be one of the premier matchups of the NCAA tournament. Jackson scored 17 points with seven rebounds in an easy first-round win over UC Davis, getting a number of his eight buckets above the rim. Bridges went 8-for-10 for 18 points with nine rebounds and three assists against Miami, while 6-8 classmate Nick Ward hit all but one of his nine shots for a game-high 19 points with seven boards against the long Hurricanes. Ward will have his hands full with 6-10 center Landen Lucas, a senior who averages 8.1 points and 8.5 rebounds. Edge: MSU.
Kansas only goes about two deep on its bench, using 6-5 guard Lagerald Vick (7.3 points in 24.3 minutes) in long stretches and 6-10 forward Carlton Bragg Jr. (5.6 points and 4.2 rebounds in 14.3 minutes) to give the post starters rest. MSU received 21 points from its bench against Miami, including seven apiece from guards Cassius Winston and Matt McQuaid. Freshman Winston delivered one of his best all-around games, handing out five assists and showing improved defense in his 22 minutes. Sophomore McQuaid hit a big early three-pointer, adding five rebounds, three assists and taking a couple critical charging fouls with a strong defensive game. Sophomore forward Kenny Goins had six points in 12 minutes. Edge: MSU.
Few experts expect the young Spartans to give the top-seeded Jayhawks a game, but this is the fourth team MSU has faced which has been ranked No. 1 at a point this season. Those other three games – against Arizona, Kentucky and Duke – all were losses, but the Spartans could’ve beaten Arizona and were right with the Blue Devils other than a three-minute meltdown. MSU defeated the Jayhawks, 79-73, in last year’s Champions Classic behind Denzel Valentine’s triple-double, but McQuaid hit some big shots in that game. It’s the fourth time they’ve met in the past five years, and MSU has won four of the past five meetings. Edge: MSU.
Izzo is 5-2 against Kansas, including a 67-62 win in the 2009 regional semifinal. The Spartans are 1-1 against Kansas in the NCAA tournament, including a loss in the infamous clock game at Kemper Arena in 1986. Izzo was an assistant at MSU and Bill Self at Kansas for that matchup. Izzo, in his 22nd-year as MSU’s head coach, owns a 7-5 all-time mark against Self, including a 4-2 record against his Jayhawks, a 2-3 mark when Self was at Illinois and a win over Self’s Tulsa team in 1998. Both coaches own one national title, but Self is five Final Fours behind Izzo’s seven. Izzo is in his 20th consecutive NCAA tournament and Self in his 19th straight, the second- and third-longest active streaks in Division I. Self’s Jayhawks are 31-12 in the NCAAs with eight Sweet 16 appearances, but they’ve also been ousted five times in the first weekend over his 14 seasons. Izzo’s Spartans are 47-18 with 13 Sweet 16 berths with six first-weekend exits. Edge: MSU.
Kansas doesn’t have the height to exploit MSU’s lack of size in the post like many teams, but the Jayhawks will look to attack the Spartans off the dribble to get them in foul trouble, specifically Bridges, Ward and Goins. MSU’s perimeter defense to prevent penetration will be critical, both with big men stepping up to defend ball screens and the guards staying in front of the slashing Jayhawks. Perhaps the one matchup that will decide this game will be Nairn and Winston against Mason, and the MSU duo has struggled with quick guards all year.
Prediction: Kansas 72, MSU 69.
Detroit Free Press