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THOMPSON: For MSU and U-M, the numbers don't lie

Nate Thompson • Jul 21, 2015 at 12:23 PM

Trust me, it's not my choice, but probably the most popular selection on my television right now is DVR'd recordings of "Sesame Street."

It keeps my nearly 2-year-old son occupied and not creating messes in the kitchen — at least for a few minutes.

One of the more popular segments on the long-running children's show has helped lead me perfectly into this college basketball column, and if that sounds strange to you, then it just means you need to babysit for me more often.

Of course, I'm talking about the number of the day.

Today's number, boys and girls, is: 4, as in Final 4.

It's the ultimate destination for Michigan State and Michigan's men's basketball teams this season, a goal I said was achievable for both in early November. And as we stand right now, both the Spartans and Wolverines are halfway home to Atlanta, Ga. — the host of college basketball's most prestigious event.

It's hard to believe, but this is the first time both the Spartans and Wolverines have reached the Sweet 16 together. And if they were to both advance to the Final Four, the voices of hoops fans in-state may become more shrill with excitement than Elmo. (You catching a theme here?)

At this point, there are definitely no easy opponents. Some may argue that Cinderella-story Florida Gulf Coast may be pushover for the mighty Florida Gators, but tell that to Georgetown and San Diego State.

There's no denying that Michigan State has arguably the toughest road to get to Atlanta, having to beat Duke on Friday and then, potentially, the tournament's top overall seed, Louisville, in the Elite Eight.

But I believe the Spartans have an edge over both opponents thanks to a two more numbers of the day: 46 and 32. Forty-six is the combined total of how many more rebounds MSU has grabbed than its two opponents in the NCAA Tournament thus far, Valparaiso and Memphis. Even for a Tom Izzo squad that prides itself on rebounding, that's awfully impressive.

What's equally impressive is 32 percent, which is the average field goal percentage for the Commodores and Tigers. That's as dismal as Oscar the Grouch.

Granted, Duke and Louisville are on another level than Valpo and Memphis, but if the Spartans can keep significantly winning those two key categories, the better their chances are at advancing to Atlanta.

MSU will be tested defensively against Duke, which has a superb inside-outside attack of 7-footer Mason Plumlee in the paint and Seth Curry beyond the arch. Then there's 6-foot-11 Ryan Kelly, who can hit shots from all over, kind of like the Blue Devils' answer to MSU's Adreian Payne.

If you base this game on matchups and consider Plumlee versus Derrick Nix a draw, and Kelly and Payne a draw, whichever team can get the most production from its backcourt will be the victor. With Keith Appling's shoulder issues a lingering concern, the Spartans need shooting guard extraordinaire Gary Harris to prove once again why he's one of the best freshmen in the country.

Arguably the Spartans' best pure shooter since Morris Peterson, if Harris can at least reach his season scoring average of 13 points, I like MSU's chances. I say that because Duke defensively in 2013 isn't the same as Duke defensively in 2001 when they had Shane Battier. I'd go as far as saying that the Blue Devils are soft in that area, considering that in four of their five losses this season, they've allowed opponents to each top 80 points.

If MSU faces a bumpy road to Atlanta, Michigan's surely isn't a newly-paved freeway, either.

In No. 1-seed Kansas and potentially, Billy Donovan's talented Florida squad (if they avoid another Florida Gulf Coast upset), the Wolverines could face two opponents that have become regular participants in the Final Four over the past decade.

Kansas was in the national championship game a year ago, and returns eight players with Final Four experience. Michigan has six players who attended their senior prom a year ago.

Maybe that's two numbers of the day that are troubling for the young Wolverines, but Kansas has looked awfully erratic in its two tourney games thus far. 

While the Jayhawks' shot selection can leave coach Bill Shelf shaking his head, what his squad really has going for it lies on defense, where the Jayhawks lead the nation in opponents' field goal percentage.

Quite simply, for Michigan to win, they need to shoot better than what Kansas allows its opponents, which is 35 percent.

Michigan has made that task look easy in wins over South Dakota State and VCU, because their transition offense is suddenly back in high gear, and 6-10 freshman center Mitch McGary is playing like a man possessed.

Sure, his punishing screens likely made U-M football coach Brady Hoke beam ear-to-ear, but more importantly, his double-double production make the Wolverines a matchup nightmare. We'll see if he can continue to put up those types of numbers against 7-footer Jeff Withey and an athletic Jayhawks’ front line.

Regardless, it just seems U-M has re-emerged from a fog that blinded it near the end of the Big Ten season, and now, the Wolverines see the green light. In a conference where opponents love to gash and bash in half-court sets, it's not surprising the free-wheeling Wolverines limped down the stretch.

This team surely has looked closer to the dominant squad from an impressive road win at Minnesota on Jan. 7, than the lackluster performance from the Big Ten quarterfinal loss to Wisconsin 11 days ago.

So on Sunday, as the nets are being cut down, here's what I hope the numbers of the day become: 2, 4, and 1.

Two in-state teams punch their tickets to the Final 4, putting one state in absolute hoops euphoria.

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