After a week of waiting and wondering and hearing they might be placed anywhere but closest to home, the Spartans learned they will play the first two rounds at Little Caesars Arena after all.
Fifth-ranked MSU received a No. 3 seed in the Midwest Region during the NCAA Tournament selection show Sunday and will face 14-seed Bucknell in the first round on Friday. Tipoff will be at 7:10 p.m. (CBS).
The Spartans spent all year working to get a No. 1 seed in the new downtown arena. That did not happen, but they avoided being sent to far-flung spots like Idaho, Kansas or San Diego.
And now, their quest for a national championship can begin as close to home as possible.
“We feel that we are an actual contender to win this thing,” said sophomore Cassius Winston, a U-D Jesuit grad. “A lot of teams can say they have a national championship as their goal, as they should. … But it’s a huge difference when dreams actually turn into something that’s achievable.
“I think right now, in our situation, we have the players, we have the coaches — we have all the things that we need for that goal to be achievable.”
It is the 21st straight year the Spartans (29-4) have made the NCAA field under coach Tom Izzo. That ranks as the fifth-longest active streak among Division I schools.
“It is a heck of a feat. And what it is, it’s consistency,” said Izzo, whose lone national title in 2000 came with NCAA Tournament games at the Palace of Auburn Hills. “That was my ultimate goal the day I got this job: Can we make this a consistent winner?”
MSU captured its third outright Big Ten championship and eighth conference title under Izzo with a 16-2 record in league play. The Spartans’ biggest wins came against North Carolina, Purdue and Notre Dame, while they lost twice to Michigan and once each to Ohio State and Duke.
The second loss to the Wolverines eliminated MSU from the Big Ten tournament on March 3 in New York. However, Izzo said the Spartans have been working on some of the issues that befell them in that game, specifically high ball screen defense and moving the ball better on offense.
“Nothing is gonna cause us to lose but us,” Izzo said.
Bucknell (25-9) won the Patriot League title this season for the second straight year. The Bison made the NCAA Tournament as a 13-seed a year ago and lost in the first round to West Virginia, 86-80.
MSU has only once previously played Bucknell, a 64-52 victory at Breslin Center on Nov. 21, 2003.
The two teams had two common opponents this season. Bucknell lost 93-81 at North Carolina on Nov. 15 and fell 80-78 three days later at Maryland. The Spartans defeated the Tar Heels 63-45 on Nov. 26 to win the PK80 tournament in Oregon, then defeated the Terrapins twice in the Big Ten regular season, 91-61 at home and 74-68 on the road.
Bucknell has been an NCAA spoiler before in a 3-14 game, upsetting Kansas 64-63 in the opening round of the 2005 tournament. The Bison beat Arkansas as a 9-seed the next year for their only other NCAA victory. Bucknell played in the first round of the NCAA Tournament at the Palace in 2006.
“Bucknell has beaten some teams, too, in the past,” Izzo said. “After what we went through a couple years ago (in losing to Middle Tennessee State), our job will be to prepare for the weekend on Monday and Tuesday. And then our job will be on Wednesday and Thursday to prepare for Bucknell, and we’ll really hone in on them.
“Definitely not taking anybody for granted.”
The Bison are led by 6-foot-7 senior forward Zach Thomas, who averages 20.3 points, 9.2 rebounds per game and shoots 37.3 percent from 3-point range.
Senior 6-9 center Nana Foulland averages 15.4 points and 7.1 rebounds, and 5-11 senior guard Stephen Brown adds 14.9 points and 4.3 assists per game.
The Spartans will be in a difficult and familiar Midwest Region bracket that is loaded with bluebloods in Kansas as the No. 1 seed and Duke as the No. 2 seed.
MSU lost, 88-81, to the Blue Devils on Nov. 14 in the Champions Classic in Chicago. The Jayhawks eliminated the Spartans, 90-70, in the second round of the NCAA Tournament last year in Tulsa, Okla.
But the Spartans are not looking ahead to any potential rematches.
“We haven’t even paid attention to that,” sophomore Miles Bridges said. “We’re just paying attention to our first game, because if we paid attention to four games ahead of us, then we’re gonna get knocked out early.”
MSU will have no public sale of its ticket allotment.
Should the Spartans beat Bucknell, they would face the winner of Friday night’s late game between No. 6 seed TCU and winner of the play-in game between 11-seeds Arizona State and Syracuse on Sunday.
MSU’s loss to Michigan snapped the Spartans’ 13-game win streak. And Izzo believes getting back into a routine of classes and not having to worry about traveling after a week off will be beneficial.
As will the spotlight of playing in Detroit in front of the familiar faces of friends, family and alums.
“I think our kids will be motivated to play in Detroit,” Izzo said. “Not that you need any motivation this time of year. But I know for some of them, it’s gonna be special.”