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Scouting the Contenders: Michigan State Spartans

Cassius Winston, Michigan State
As March Madness slowly inches closer and closer, "Scouting the Contenders" takes a look at some of the nation's best teams in a chaotic race, and scouts their strengths and weaknesses and just how far they could go in the NCAA Tournament. We continue with second-ranked Michigan State, who seems primed to lock down a No. 1 seed.

Track Record:

  • 26-3 overall, 14-2 Big Ten
  • Notable Wins: 68-65 vs. Purdue, 63-45 vs. UNC, 81-63 vs. Notre Dame
  • Notable Losses: 80-64 @ Ohio State, 82-72 vs. Michigan, 88-81 vs. Duke
  • Received 21 first-place votes in latest AP poll
Scouting Report: A popular preseason National Title pick, Michigan State has been an enigma for a big chunk of 2017-2018. There is no denying the impressive talent on the roster, and the Spartans do sit at the top of the standings in the Big Ten, but there is a question on just how good they really are. Compared to some of the other teams at the top of the standings, MSU's resume isn't very strong, and they have yet to beat a ranked team on the road. However, there is reason to still feel confident about the Spartans, and not just because proven head coach Tom Izzo is on the sideline. Sophomore Miles Bridges gives MSU a clear advantage over others, even though he has fallen in love with the three this season (where he is shooting an average 37 percent). Bridges has the talent and athleticism to take over games anytime he wants to, but he struggles to really be the "go-to" guy, and has moments where he disappears entirely. When he is playing well, this team has Final Four talent, but Bridges' play is definitely an X-factor. Fellow sophomores Cassius Winston and Nick Ward are also key components to this team. Winston has cut down on turnovers and shown he can be a leader on this team. He is an ideal complement to Bridges when he is playing well, as he doesn't need the ball to be effective and can space the floor. Ward has grown into one of the best big men in the conference, and can form quite a scary 1-2 punch with frontcourt mate Jaren Jackson. Ward is the classic, back-to-the-basket center that is a beast on the low block, while Jackson's shooting ability (44% from three) gives this offense a whole new dynamic. That core is awfully talented and despite the fact none are beyond sophomores, they have great chemistry and communicate well. But, it is also a group that is not very consistent and sometimes plays down to lesser opponents. There is always the concern the Spartans could have a bad shooting night in the NCAA Tournament early on, which of course would doom them. The good news is that Michigan State does have plenty of depth to fall back on. Role players like sharpshooting Matt McQuaid and veteran Gavin Schilling are never going to be the top options on an offense, but they bring valuable experience and give this team real energy off the bench. That depth will be key in the Tournament particularly if this team is able to get to the later rounds, where everybody is tired and bench play becomes critical. Overall, the roster makeup of this team is basically ideal. They have a good crop of shooters, solid guard play and versatile big men, along with a terrific coach who has proven he can win the important ones. If there is a chief concern, beyond the inconsistency that plagues this team at times, it is the experience factor. This is not a team of one-and-dones, but Bridges, Winston, Ward and another sophomore, Joshua Langford, have played in just one short-lived NCAA Tournament trip. That doesn't mean the big stage of March Madness will be too much for the group, but this is a very young team by Izzo standards, which could really haunt them.

The Verdict: With their versatility, depth and overall talent, Michigan State is the epitome of a team that typically does well in March. Of course, there 2015-2016 team was as well, and was absolutely shocked by 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee, but I think this team will be different. With Bridges leading the show, MSU has one of the country's best players, and a supporting cast that fits perfectly. If I had to make a National Title pick right now, in mid-February, Michigan State would probably be my pick, particularly in a year that has been so insanely chaotic. However, they still have things to figure out on the court, and will have continued fallout surrounding the Larry Nassar sexual assault investigation. If those off-court problems don't hurt this team's focus, I see Final Four in the future.

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