The second half of the Sweet 16 tips off tonight, and one matchup, in particular, is going to be must-watch. In Washington D.C., No. 2 Michigan State (30-6, 1st Big Ten) goes up against No. 3 LSU (28-6, 1st SEC) in the East region semifinals.
Here’s how each team got here, some keys to the game, and a final prediction. Right now, Michigan State is the favorite at -6.0.
Road to Sweet 16
We’ll start with the Spartans, who escaped No. 15 Bradley in the opening round 76-65, and then followed it up with a dominant performance against No. 10 Minnesota 70-50. The game against Minnesota, in particular, was a dominant effort from Michigan State, where they held the Golden Gophers to two of 22 from 3-point range and out-rebounded them 45-19.
LSU, meanwhile, has played two incredibly close games. First, the Tigers squeaked past No. 14 Yale. Then in the next game, a back-and-forth contest with No. 6 Maryland ended with Tremont Waters hitting the game-winning layup with 1.6 seconds left to win 69-67 to advance to the Sweet 16. LSU has struggled to shoot from beyond the arc in each of their two games, combining to hit just 27 percent of their attempts.
Keys for Michigan State
After failing to get out of the first weekend each of the past three seasons, the Spartans are playing their 14th Sweet 16 under coach Tom Izzo. The Spartans are tournament-tested, playing in their 22nd straight NCAA tournament overall.
Michigan State is as well-rounded as they come. Playing in the tough Big Ten, MSU led the nation in assists, and was top-10 in field-goal percentage defense, rebounds, and blocked shots. If Michigan State out-rebounds LSU and wins the turnover battle, they will be in a great position to advance to the Elite 8.
The Spartans are led by All-Big Ten point guard Cassius Winston. At just under 19 points per game in the regular season as well as a conference-leading 7.5 assists, Winston can score, find the open man, and control the tempo. MSU also has Xavier Tillman, Kenny Goins and Nick Ward. Tillman and Goins can rebound and block, with each of them tallying six and five double-doubles, respectively. Meanwhile, Ward is an offensive threat off the bench, shooting 59.1 percent from the field.
Keys for LSU
LSU has had a news-filled month, highlighted by the suspension of head coach Will Wade. But under interim Tony Benford, LSU is 3-1 and in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2006 and just the 10th time overall. Benford is the first interim coach since Michigan’s Steve Fisher in 1989 to take a team this far in the tournament.
The Tigers thrive off of their ability to take away the basketball and push their well-rounded offense. LSU averaged just under nine steals a game and score 81.3 points per game, top-25 in the nation. They also rely on second-chance points and winning the rebounding battle. LSU has scored 40 or more points in the paint 17 times this year, second only to Duke. They also led the SEC in offensive rebounding at 13.5 per game.
Tremont Waters, the hero against Maryland, is the leading scorer at 15 points per game. LSU also has Skylar Mays (13.6 ppg) and center Naz Reid (13.7) to contribute to their prolific offense. Between Reid, Kavell Bigby-Williams, and Emmitt Williams, LSU has three of the SEC’s top 11 in offensive rebounding.
This is a game that may play into LSU’s hand a little bit more. They have a considerable advantage in both size and athleticism and are the better rebounding team. That and turnovers will play the biggest factor, as LSU forces about nine steals per game and Michigan State is coming off of a game where they committed 22 turnovers. If MSU wins the rebounding battle and pushes the tempo, that will certainly change some things. But I think Benford’s LSU Tigers will advance to the Elite 8.
Final Score: LSU 77, Michigan State 70