Welcome to Playboy.com’s 2014 Bracket Challenge

NCAA Championship Game: Michigan State Spartans v North Carolina Tar Heels

Team Preview: 2014 Michigan State Spartans

By: Nick Healey

2012-13 record: 27-9, 13-5

Coach: Tom Izzo

 “I seen hoop dreams deflate like a true fiend’s weight” - “Izzo,” Jay-Z

The Michigan State Spartans are a pretty good team. And their coach, Tom Izzo, even has a Jay-Z song named after him. Not really. But he probably deserves to. The man has been on a mean run ever since he landed in East Lansing. He took over the reins in 1995 and has made tournament appearances in all but two of those years (and every year since 1998). That includes seven Final Fours and a tournament win in 2000. He’s also from a place called Iron Mountain, so it’s entirely possible he is some sort of god from ancient Michiganian mythology. We just don’t know for sure.

Strongside: One of the great advantages any college basketball team can have is returning players. In the era of “one-and-done,” having a core group return to play together is huge. They’re comfortable, the coach can pick up where he left off and players continue to mature as a unit. Michigan State has most of their team coming back, which bodes well for this season. The team is 7-1 through the early goings and was ranked first at one point. The two key cogs in the offense are senior point guard Keith Appling and sophomore shooting guard Gary Harris, who average around 16 and 17 points a game, respectively. Center Adreian Payne and forward Branden Dawson are also playing well and grabbing everything in sight, averaging nearly eight and nine boards per game.

Statistically, the Spartans are a good all-around team. They average just over 83 points a game, rebound at a solid clip (39.5 rpg) and shoot a very respectable .487 from the field and .374 from three-point range. And just for good measure, they lead the league in assists per game (20.8).

Finally, as if the team didn’t have enough strong points, they also have top-tier coaching to ice the cake. Izzo is one of the best in the game, and one of the highest paid at roughly $3.5 million per year. He hasn’t entered the stratosphere of the Coach Ks or the Boeheims quite yet, but he’s well on the way.

Weakside: When you’re one of the top-ranked teams in the country, weaknesses aren’t exactly abundant. The only sticking point so far is their recent loss to UNC at home. It wasn’t pretty. The game was nationally televised, and the inconsistent Tar Heels easily handled a Spartans team whose vaunted defense looked pretty flat. Izzo was at a loss to explain the lackadaisical effort and called it “one of the most disappointing performances in my career here.” Now, UNC is no slouch, but this was widely considered the Spartans’ game to lose—and they did. To make matters worse, Appling went down with an injury after crashing hard on his hip. He returned to the game, but he and some others—including Harris (ankle)—are already a little banged up in the early goings, which is not ideal.

All Told: Going into the season, Michigan State was one of the odds-on favorites to win the whole tournament. The fugly loss to the Tar Heels helped drop them to fifth in the rankings, which stings, but hardly implies this is a team in trouble. How they respond will be telling, but as long as they don’t let the weight of their first loss deflate them too much, they’ll be just fine.



Nick Healey is a Toronto-based writer/editor. He once met Dan Akroyd in a Dairy Queen. You can follow him on Twitter @nickjhealey.

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