GAME NOTES: Big Ten Conference Tournament champions Michigan State will try to avoid a letdown in the second round of the 2014 NCAA Tournament, as the Spartans take on the Delaware Blue Hens in East Region action from Spokane Arena.
Coming into the season, Michigan State was on a short list of national title contenders. Some stumbles during the regular season pushed them out, but the Spartans are suddenly back in the conversation. In fact, they are now considered one of the real favorites in this event. After dominating Michigan in the Big Ten title game (69-55), Tom Izzo's squad is now 26-8 and in possession of the No. 4 seed in the East Region, as it makes its 17th straight NCAA Tournament appearance. That is the third-longest active streak behind Kansas (25) and Duke (19).
Delaware does not have nearly as much history in this event, as the team has made four previous appearances in the tourney, with this being its first since 1999. They are a deserving squad this season, finishing at 25-9 overall and claiming both the Colonial Athletic Association regular season and tournament titles.
This bout marks the first meeting between these two schools in men's basketball, with the winner moving on to face either fifth-seed Cincinnati or 12th-seed Harvard on Saturday.
Carl Baptiste's layup with 12 seconds to play was the difference for Delaware in a thrilling 75-74 win over William & Mary in the CAA title game. Baptiste finished with a game-high 24 points on 9-of-11 shooting and Jarvis Threatt (18 points) and Devon Saddler (16 points) each made an impact as well.
Scoring has come rather easily for Delaware, which plays at an accelerated pace and is ranked in the top-25 in the country in offensive production (79.5 ppg). Saddler (19.7 ppg) and Usher (19.4 ppg) are two of the most potent scoring guards in the country, with Usher also a skilled rebounder (6.1 rpg). Threatt (18.1 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 5.6 apg, 2.5 spg) is also a dangerous scorer, but it is his versatility that makes him even more impressive. Despite missing some time earlier in the year, the 6-foot-2 guard is still leading the team in assists and steals, while ranking third in rebounding. Baptiste (11.3 ppg, 8 rpg) leads in that area, and Kyle Anderson (11 ppg) provides further depth.
Michigan State abused top-seeded Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament final, holding the Wolverines to 31.5 percent shooting in the 14-point win. The Spartans connected on 50 percent from the field themselves, with Adreian Payne leading the way with 18 points and nine rebounds.
The Spartans are a solid offensive group, ranking second in the Big Ten in scoring (75.6 ppg) and field goal percentage (.475), while leading the league in assists (17 apg). Injuries took their toll in the regular season for Izzo's squad, however, with Keith Appling (12.3 ppg, 4.6 apg) and Payne (15.8 ppg, 7.4 rpg) each slowed by maladies that took some time to heal and hampered their play once they returned. Both appear to have returned to form though, especially Payne, who has scored in double figures in four of the last five games. Gary Harris (17.1 ppg) has been the one constant on the team all season and when teamed with a healthy Appling, there are few backcourts in the nation that can compete.
There is no question that Delaware has a fearsome trio in the backcourt. However, the Spartans, when healthy, have as much talent at both ends of the court as any team in the country. Add in Izzo's stellar resume' in March and it's hard to imagine MSU making a quick exit.
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