East Lansing — There’s a reason the NCAA Tournament is referred to by the phrase March Madness.
Michigan State understands that as well as any team. It was just two years ago, as the favorite to win the national championship, that the Spartans didn’t make it out of their first game. That day in St. Louis, Michigan State became the eighth 2-seed to get eliminated by a 15-seed when Middle Tennessee State pulled off the 90-81 upset.
The Blue Raiders made 11 of 19 3-pointers to send the shell-shocked Spartans packing.
It was a moment few programs have been able to avoid. Duke. Arizona. Syracuse. Kansas. North Carolina. Indiana — all are among the teams that have lost first-round games as a 2- or 3-seed.
Which brings Michigan State to Friday’s matchup with Bucknell at Little Caesars Arena. The Spartans are seeded No. 3 in the Midwest Region with the Bison at No. 14. It’s the first time Michigan State has had to face down the demons from the Middle Tennessee loss after entering last season’s tournament as a 9-seed.
So, instead of trying to act like it didn’t happen, the Spartans feel like they’re doing their best to hold that game up not so much of what not to do, but more of an example of the fact there are no certainties this time of year.
“Nothing is guaranteed,” sophomore Cassius Winston said. “Every game, anything can happen. We just have to come in and control everything that we can control.”
That might be easy to say for Winston. He was a high school senior when Michigan State lost that game two years ago, watching from home as the Denzel Valentine-led Spartans were stunned.
That’s not the case for three current Spartans. Seniors Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn and Gavin Schilling played significant minutes against Middle Tennessee while junior Kenny Goins played four minutes but reaggravated a knee injury in the first half.
All three have made sure to impart their own sort of wisdom since the bracket was announced on Sunday night, revealing the matchup against the Patriot League champions that have lost just once in the last 23 games.
“(Middle Tennessee) made so many shots in that game,” Nairn said. “I tell these guys that we’ve got to control what we can control. We can’t control the other team making shots but we can control how hard we play, how hard we defend, how well we follow the scouting report. If we make an error and they get a wide-open three because we’re not following the scouting report that’s different than if we follow everything we’re supposed to do in the game and they make a shot over you. If they make it you can’t control that so you want to control what you can control.”
Doing that against the Bison won’t be simple. Two players — senior guards Zach Thomas and Stephen Brown — have made 60 3-pointers this season while seven players are shooting 32 percent or better from 3-point range.
Thomas is this season’s Patriot League player of the year while 6-foot-10 senior center Nana Foulland won the award in 2017. He is averaging 15.4 points and 7.1 rebounds a game.
Bucknell will be without 6-foot-8 forward Bruce Moore because of a violation of team rules. He averaged 21.7 minutes and 5.6 points this season.
“I look at them and they’re as good or better than Middle Tennessee,” said Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, “and similar except they’re bigger and the bigger guys can shoot it.”
Izzo has decided, outside of a quick mention during a team meeting on Sunday night, that he will not focus on what happened two years ago. After all, only a few players will truly appreciate what he’s talking about and he feels the younger players will understand that better listening to Nairn, Schilling and Goins.
Instead, Izzo is focusing on what Bucknell did this season against two common opponents. The Bison pushed both North Carolina and Maryland to the edge, coming up short in both but proving they’re no pushover.
“It’s kind of unique,” Izzo said. “I can explain it to a couple of them and I can use Middle Tennessee because the number of guys that can shoot the ball. But most of our players weren’t here for that so I don’t use that, I just talk to them about when (Bucknell) got beat by two by Maryland, that’s when Maryland had (Justin Jackson) that was still playing, and they played awfully well. I mean they had them down 50-35 at halftime and it looked worse than that, so I really have looked at those two games.”
Of course, Michigan State will have the advantage of being close to home this time around. If Bucknell is in the game late, there won’t be the unique dynamic of a tournament where fans all start pulling for the underdog.
But Izzo doesn’t think that will matter. He believes his team is ready for the challenge.
“I don't think this team has the ego, though I didn't think the one two years ago did, either,” Izzo said. “But I don't think this team has an ego issue where they're thinking they are better than everybody. So, I haven't harped on it. … I just told them, ‘This is what you look out for.’”
MICHIGAN STATE VS. BUCKNELL
Tip-off: 7:10 Friday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit
Records: No. 3 seed Michigan State 29-4; No. 14 seed Bucknell 25-9
Next up: Winner faces the winner between No. 6 TCU and the winner of the No. 11 Arizona State and No. 11 Syracuse “First Four” game Sunday.