Michigan State seeking to survive weekend in Des Moines

AP PHOTO - Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo watches his team during practice at the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament, Wednesday in Des Moines. Michigan State plays Bradley on Thursday.

DES MOINES — It seems as though coach Tom Izzo has Michigan State poised to make a Final Four run nearly every year.

The Spartans need to focus on surviving the first weekend this time around. It has been four years since Michigan State (28-6) made it to the Sweet Sixteen, the longest such drought of the Izzo era.

The Spartans were stunned by 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee State in the opening round in 2016 before a pair of second-round losses: blown out by top-seeded Kansas two years ago and knocked off by 11th-seeded Syracuse last year.

But this version of Michigan State, seeded second in the East Region, looks poised for big things over the next few weeks.

The Spartans, who open NCAA Tournament play on Thursday against No. 15 Bradley (20-14), won a share of the Big Ten title and followed that up by winning the league tournament, besting rival Michigan 65-60 in the championship game. Michigan State has one of the best point guards in the country in Big Ten Player of the Year Cassius Winston, and he’s surrounded by a strong supporting cast of veterans like Nick Ward, Matt McQuaid and Kenny Goins.

Still, three straight years of packing for home in the first weekend has Michigan State wary. The Spartans promise they are not overlooking Bradley, which advanced after rallying from 18 points down to beat Northern Iowa in the biggest comeback in Missouri Valley title game history.

“They’re going to play their best, you know? They’re going to fight the whole time and we’ve got to be ready, you know?” Winston said. “We can’t be lackadaisical, anything like that. We’ve got to come out and play with energy and come out and play with heart.”

As the East Region opens play on Thursday, Louisville faces Minnesota in Des Moines and Jacksonville, Florida, is the site for LSU vs. Yale and Maryland against Belmont.

LOUISVILLE VS. MINNESOTA

For all the talk about Minnesota’s Richard Pitino coaching against a Louisville team that fired his father Rick, this is a very important game for the Gophers’ program.

Minnesota (21-13) hasn’t won an NCAA Tournament game since 2013, and Pitino has been in Minneapolis for six seasons without a breakthrough in March. The 10th-seeded Gophers, who beat Purdue twice in March to snag a bid, are led by veterans Jordan Murphy and Amir Coffey.

“They go about their business,” Pitino said about his team. “They’re not about a beat-your-chest type of team. You make a three you’re not going to see a bow and arrow. They’re just going to get back on defense, and that’s the way I like it.”

Louisville is back after a one-year absence under first-year coach Chris Mack. The seventh-seeded Cardinals (20-13) are five-point favorites, and if they survive they could get a rematch with Michigan State in the second round. Louisville surprised the Spartans 82-78 in overtime in November, a win that helped shape their season.

MONTANA-MICHIGAN AGAIN

No. 15 seed Montana (26-8) has the full attention of Michigan coach John Beilein. The teams are meeting in the first round for the second straight year.

Michigan (28-6) won 61-47 in 2018, but the game was not without some drama.

“I hope it doesn’t go the way it did last year,” he said. “They were ahead of us 10-0 to the start the game, and they have a lot of guys back. We are a little brand new to playing in this type of game. They know Montana is even better than they were last year.”

The Grizzlies, who won the Big Sky regular-season title and tournament, are 15-point underdogs.

“We’ve had a few games where the bull’s eye wasn’t on our backs, and those were the ones that our guys performed best at, whether we were on the road or we found ourselves in second or third in the standings and we were trying to get back to the top,” Montana coach Travis DeCuire said. “We played with a high level of desperation. I think for a rematch our guys will go into the game the same way.”

WOLF PACK GATOR BAIT?

Jalen Hudson of Florida (19-15) didn’t sound like a man whose team is the lower seed for its game against Nevada (29-4) in Des Moines.

“They’re a very experienced team. Obviously, they have had a lot of success,” Hudson said. “They are a mid-major team, though. I don’t think they’ve seen a team like us in a long time.”

Granted, the seventh-seeded Wolf Pack (29-4) of the Mountain West haven’t played the most rigorous schedule, but they are 3-0 against Pac-12 opponents Southern California, Arizona State and Utah.

Going to the Well

Here’s a list of today’s NCAA Tournament games at Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines:

Louisville (20-13) vs. Minnesota (21-13), 11:15 a.m. (CBS)

Michigan State (28-6) vs. Bradley (20-14), 1:45 p.m. (CBS)

Nevada (29-4) vs. Florida (19-15), 5:50 p.m. (TBS)

Michigan (28-6) vs. Montana (26-8), 8:20 p.m. (TBS)