When the first and second round sites were announced for the 2018 NCAA Tournament, it was no secret that Michigan State was hoping for the opportunity to play close to home in the Motor City.
Following a semifinal exit to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament, the chances of playing at the almost brand new Little Caesar’s Arena seemed to take a hit. However the selection committee may have thrown the Spartans a bone, as Michigan State will indeed begin tournament play in downtown Detroit.
First Round Preview
The Spartans are the 3-seed in the Midwest region and will face 14th-seeded Bucknell (25-9, 16-2), the champions of the Patriot League. The Bison are no strangers to March Madness and have busted some brackets before. You may remember their upset of 3-seeded Kansas back in 2005. More recently Bucknell pushed a No. 4 seed West Virginia team to the limit in last year’s 86-80 first round defeat.
The Bison recovered from an 0-4 start to the season and won 18 of their past 19 games to earn the Patriot League’s auto bid. The one common opponent between these two squads: North Carolina, who Bucknell lost to 93-81.
At first glance, the Bison are a senior-laden team with its three top scorers all seniors who account for over 50 of Bucknell’s 80.1 points per game. Zach Thomas, a 6-7 forward, led the league in scoring with 20.3 points per game, while 6-9 center Nana Foulland added 15.4 points per game. The rest of the bulk of the scoring came from 5-11 guard Stephen Brown, who averages 14.9 points per game. Although those three account for a majority of the scoring, the Bison do have five other players averaging at least four points per game.
Bucknell has two good three-point shooters in Thomas and Brown, who each accounted for 60 field goals from beyond the arc this season. The Bison led the Patriot League in scoring and were 35th offensively in the nation.
On defense, Bucknell allows 72.9 points per game and is a team that likes to crash the boards and block shots. Thomas leads the team in rebounding with 312 boards (9.1 per game), including 45 on the offensive end. Foulland had a team high 61 blocks during the season and the Bison have four other players with 20 or more blocks.
Bucknell is coached by Nathan Davis (68-32 in his third season).
As in most matchups this season, Michigan State will have a distinct size advantage in the front court. The 6-11 Jaren Jackson Jr., who broke the school record for blocks in a season with 104, will be a problem for Bucknell. Jackson blocks 15.4 percent of the opponents’ two-point field goals when on the floor, the highest in the nation. Unless the Bison can somehow burn the nets from outside or get Jackson in foul trouble, which is possible, this will be a tough matchup for upset-minded Bucknell.
A look at the rest of Midwest region
Despite getting the favorable first round site in Detroit, the Spartans have a tough road ahead of them if they are to make as deep a run as many MSU fans expect. While the possible second round matchup of either TCU or Syracuse/Arizona State shouldn’t be too much to handle for Michigan State, the No. 2 seed Duke looms as a possible opponent in the Sweet 16. The Spartans faced the Blue Devils back in November in the Champions Classic, falling 88-81. Michigan State has a long history of losing to Duke (1-11 during Tom Izzo’s tenure), but they did upset the top-seeded Blue Devils in 2005 on their way to the Final Four.
Game date: Friday, March 16
Game time: 7:10 p.m. eastern
Location: Little Caesar’s Arena, Detroit, Mich.