Who: No. 4-seed Michigan State Spartans (26-8) vs. No. 13-seed Delaware (25-9)
What: NCAA tournament
When: Thursday, March 20, 4:40 p.m. ET (TNT)
Where: Spokane, Washington (Spokane Arena)
FUN FACT: Hi! Nice to meet you!
The Michigan State Spartans and the Delaware Blue Hens will meet for the first time ever in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
The game, which will be played in Spokane, Wash., will be blessed by former Michigan State head coach Jud Heathcote. The former Spartan coach resides in the Spokane area, and has been present for many of the Spartans’ matchups in that area since retiring.
MATCHUP TO WATCH FOR: MSU DEFENSE VS. DELAWARE OFFENSE
Pretty vague, right? Well, for those who aren’t familiar, all five of the Blue Hens’ starters averaged double-digit points during the regular season — senior guard Devon Saddler led the way with 19.7 points per game. And as a team, Delaware ranked 24th in the nation in scoring with 79.5 ppg.
However, while the Blue Hens have the players to light up the scoreboard, they aren’t much of a threat from 3-point range. As a team, Delaware shot about 35 percent from beyond the arc during the regular season, which ranked 169th in the nation.
If you ask Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo, one of the most modest guys I’ve ever been around, who the best defensive backcourt tandem in the nation is, he’ll be quick to toot his own horn.
On several different occasions this season, Izzo has proclaimed his backcourt of senior Keith Appling and Gary Harris as the nation’s best defensive duo. And while they’ve had their troubles this season — see 80-75 loss to in-state rival Michigan — not many people familiar with college hoops would disagree with Izzo’s statement.
Both Appling and Harris are great on-ball defenders who have the potential to turn great defense into great offense at the blink of an eye. And with the arsenal of scorers that Delaware has at its disposal, Appling, Harris and the rest of the Michigan State team must be sharp defensively if they want to avoid an upset.
Defense is something that Izzo and his squads have hung their hats on for many years, and if the Spartans can halt the Delaware offense from the jump, get a big lead and force the Blue Hens to hoist 3-pointers, then they should breeze through the second round.
X-FACTOR: DENZEL VALENTINE
When a team is as gifted offensively as Delaware is, you must play good defense for 40 minutes and limit their possessions. How do you do that? By not turning the ball over.
Michigan State sophomore forward Denzel Valentine is not only the Spartan’s most diverse player, but he’s without a doubt the best passer on the team. And while the 6-foot-5, Lansing, Mich., native was is a phenomenal passer, his best attribute can also be his biggest weakness. At times Valentine tries to do too much when it comes to distributing, and during his freshman year, and earlier this season, too, that limited his minutes.
Now a starter, Valentine must control his emotions and make sure that he is making the right pass and not the stand-up-out-of-your-seat pass. The Spartans can’t afford to give the Blue Hens extra possessions if they want to meet the lofty expectations that the nation has handed them, and it all starts with taking care of the ball.
PREDICTION: MSU 78, Delaware 59