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Senior-led Spartans kick off tournament run vs. MTSU

Denzel Valentine guaranteed MSU national title

Joe Robbins/Getty Images
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

DETROIT – The Michigan State Spartans will begin what figures to be a long NCAA Tournament run Friday against Conference USA champion Middle Tennessee State.

Middle Tennessee State cracked the Field of 68 after winning the Conference USA tournament as the No. 2 seed. Top-seeded UAB, which beat MTSU by three games during the regular season, was upset early in the tournament and left the door open for the Blue Raiders.

MTSU finished the season on a nice six-game winning streak, but Friday will clearly be the No. 15 Blue Raiders' toughest challenge of the season.

The second-seeded Spartans are one of the favorites to take home the tournament crown after tearing through the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis, knocking off Maryland and Purdue last weekend to seal the deal.

MSU is led by National Player of the Year candidate Denzel Valentine, who won Big Ten Tournament MVP honors and averaged 19.4 points, 7.6 rebounds and 7.6 assists per game as a senior. Valentine has scored 14 or more points in Michigan State's last 17 games, dating back to Jan. 10, which was his first game back from injury. 

With a fully-healthy Valentine, the Spartans have been the most dominant team in the country. Other than a 4-4 stretch with the senior sidelined or slowed by injury, MSU was 25-1 on the year.

But during a nine-game winning streak to close out the season, it was Valentine's fellow seniors who really made the Spartans unbeatable.

Bryn Forbes really exploded for Tom Izzo's team in his senior season, shooting 48.4 percent from beyond the arc and scoring 14.4 points per game. In the six games between MSU's loss to Purdue and the Big Ten Tournament, Forbes averaged 20 points per game and made 56 percent of his three-point attempts.

In road wins over Ohio State and Rutgers, Forbes made a combined 18 of 26 triples. If he gets on that type of tear during the NCAA Tournament, Michigan State will be nearly impossible to beat.

Forbes ran into a bit of a cold spell in Indianapolis last weekend, scoring just 22 points on seven for 22 shooting overall. But as one of the better jump shooters in the country, his slump isn't likely to carry over into the Round of 64.

The third piece to MSU's dynamic senior trio is center Matt Costello, who turned into a walking double-double this season.

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Costello is Michigan State's motor and does his best work around the rim. In 34 games, Costello turned in 10 double-doubles and scored in double figures in 16 of the team's last 22 games. He is extremely efficient -- making 54.7 percent of his field goal attempts -- and knocks down 75 percent of his foul shots, a critical advantage for big men in the NCAA Tournament.

Michigan State isn't just a three-man team -- Eron Harris and Deyonta Davis both contribute offensively and on the boards -- but the play of its seniors will determine how deep a run the Spartans can make. Valentine guaranteed a national championship after the team's Senior Night victory over Ohio State, so expect him to turn it up a notch to back that up.

With a win Friday, the Spartans will earn a date with either No. 7 Dayton or No. 10 Syracuse in the Round of 32.