Michigan State shifts focus from bracket to Bradley

Michigan State (28-6) is in the NCAA Tournament for the 22nd straight season.
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State took at least a few minutes Sunday night and early Monday to scratch its head and wonder how the chips fell where they did.

But it didn’t take long for the Spartans to start dialing in on the next opponent, shrugging off bracket envy to focus on branding the Bradley Braves, a 20-win team from the Missouri Valley Conference.

The Spartans followed a Big Ten regular-season championship by winning the conference tournament title on Sunday. While the club was holding out hope for a 1-seed in the NCAA Tournament, Michigan State drew the No. 2 seed in the East Region and will take on No. 15 Bradley on Thursday in Des Moines, Iowa.

“Seeding and bracket concerns are comparably minor topics when you really look at the big picture,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “Everyone always spends the first few days talking about the bracket, talking about the seedings, then Shazam, the tournament starts and there’s 10 upsets in the first two weeks and sometimes the first week, and it all kind of evens out.

“This is what I’ve decide we’re looking at — we’re a championship team despite having the smallest margin of error because we focused on what is immediately in front of us. We’re gonna do the same and focus on Bradley.”

Michigan State (28-6) is in the NCAA Tournament for the 22nd straight season, the third longest active streak behind Kansas (30) and Duke (24). Some believe the Spartans got a tough draw as the No. 6 overall seed being placed in the same region as Duke, the top overall seed.

But Izzo and the Spartans have been overcoming obstacles all season, losing Joshua Langford to injury midway through the season, getting junior center Nick Ward back from a broken hand last weekend and watching junior wing Kyle Ahrens suffer a nasty sprained ankle that will likely end his season.

“I’m appreciative that I’m in the NCAA tournament,” Izzo said. “It’s been 22 straight years, and not one of those 22 years have I taken anything for granted. I think it’s apropos that maybe this team has been through adversity all year, and so another curve has been thrown – unfortunately, it’s not the S-curve. And I will play whoever they tell me to play – I’ll play them any place, anywhere, any time, just like I’ve done my entire career.”

It’s an entirely different world for Bradley, the tournament champions of the Missouri Valley Conference. Since the MVC title was in the bag days before the Big Ten tournament tipped off, the Braves are definitely rested.

They’re also more than ready to get back on the court. During the week off, the private university in Central Illinois made national headlines by barring a longtime reporter from the team with a claim he failed to “promote the Bradley brand.”

Coach Brian Wardle, in his fourth season, has the Braves (20-14) in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006 after winning the conference tournaments, beating last year’s Cinderella, Loyola Chicago, along the way.

“To celebrate with our fans was great,” Wardle said. “I mean the roar we had, the joy on everyone’s faces, it’s been a while. Thirteen years is a long time. Three in 31 years is along time.”

Bradley has faced Michigan State four times in its history, losing all four, including three straight from 2006-08. However, the Braves are still ready for the next step.

And you can bet the Braves know all about Michigan State’s troubles getting out of the first weekend of the tournament, including a loss to No. 15 Middle Tennessee State in the first round in 2016.

“Finally putting a name all week to the question, ‘Who you guys gonna play? Where you going?'” senior forward Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye told the ABC affiliate in Peoria, Ill. “Now we know we’re playing Michigan State, now we know we’re going to Des Moines, Iowa, and it’s just fun. We know with certainty, we know what’s happening and we can prepare and get excited.”

One area the Braves will need to have locked down in Iowa on Thursday is rebounding. A furious rally to beat Northern Iowa in the MVC title game was nearly undone by BU’s inability to limit UNI’s second-chance looks. More of the same against the Spartans is a sure ticket out of the NCAA Tournament.