The Miami-Michigan State first-round matchup epitomizes a No. 8 vs. No. 9 seed line in the NCAA Tournament.
Like every game in that spot, it’s hard to pick a winner, at least on the surface.
But it will also be a pairing of accomplished coaches and teams that aren’t quite where they would like to be, though close, when the Hurricanes and Spartans tip off in the late game on Friday at the BOK Center in Tulsa.
Eighth-seeded Miami (21-11) is making its third NCAA Tournament appearance under coach Jim Larranaga, who guided the Hurricanes to the Sweet 16 in their two previous March Madness excursions. Last season, Miami advanced through the first weekend before losing to eventual national champion Villanova.
Michigan State (19-14) is making its 20th consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. The Spartans finished lower in the Big Ten standings than usual in a four-way tie for fifth, but they’re still a team that anyone dreads to see in March.
Despite the fact that 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee shocked No. 2 Michigan State in the opening round a year ago, Spartans coach Tom Izzo has a well established reputation for building a program that delves deep in to the tournament.
Michigan State advanced at least to the Sweet 16 every year from 2012 to 2015 and earned a Final Four berth in 2015.
Izzo said his young team might still have its best basketball ahead of it this season.
“We need to work on us a little bit,” Izzo said. “We still need to improve what we do and we’ll get an extra day of that. I think they’re ready to try to make a run and that’s the time of year it is.”
Miami has lost three of four, all to NCAA Tournament qualifiers.
The Hurricanes defeated Syracuse in the ACC Tournament second round before North Carolina ousted the Hurricanes from that bracket, 78-53, in the quarterfinals.
Even so, Larranaga doesn’t believe his team is limping into the postseason.
“I think our young players have really come along of late and our upperclassmen have been very, very good throughout the season,” Larranaga said. “If we can have great balance between the offense and defense where our young guys are really defending at the level our upperclassmen are, that gives us a chance at the defensive end.”
Like Miami, Michigan State has lost three of the last four including a five-point loss to Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament quarterfinals.
That slump followed the Spartans’ best win of the season when Michigan State defeated No. 16 Wisconsin, 84-74, on Feb. 26 in East Lansing, Mich.
With so little separating Miami and Michigan State on paper, Izzo visualized a toss-up game in which the ability to make shots will decide it. Interestingly, he put the emphasis on his fourth through seventh scorers to make the difference.
“It’s going to come down to we’re going to have to shoot the ball better and a lot of that is going to fall on (Matt) McQuaid and (Joshua) Langford and (Cassius) Winston and probably (Alvin) Ellis,” Izzo said.
On the other bench, Miami will prepare for Michigan State as if the Spartans won the Big Ten, as evidenced by Larranaga comparing Michigan State to ACC champion North Carolina.
“The very first thing you have to do is prevent the five-second layup because there’s two programs that pride themselves on scoring, even right after you score, within the first five seconds,” Larranaga said. “The two best in the country in my estimation are North Carolina and Michigan State.”