4 things to watch for as Michigan State battles Bucknell in first round of NCAA Tournament
Spartans receive No. 3 seed at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit
DETROIT – The Michigan State Spartans haven't played a game in nearly two weeks, but they'll take the court Friday to battle Bucknell in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
Michigan State was given the No. 3 seed in the Midwest Region of the bracket and can play its first two games at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit.
Here are four things to watch for if the Spartans hope to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
1. Can Jaren Jackson Jr. steal the stage?
Michigan State's roster is loaded with talent, but nobody is as good as freshman forward Jaren Jackson Jr.
The NCAA Tournament is the ultimate stage for future NBA lottery picks, and though Jackson has been good most of the season, there's room for him to be even more dominant. He plays just 22 minutes per game, but still averages 11.3 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.2 blocks.
A player such as Jackson, who shoots better than 50 percent from the floor, nearly 40 percent from beyond the arc and 80 percent from the free-throw line, should take over in the early rounds.
Bucknell is outside the top 100 in terms of defense, and the tallest player on the roster is 6-foot-9. Jackson has to be a star.
2. Will Cassius Winston hold up defensively?
The NCAA Tournament is all about guard play, and Michigan State has a back court that could be an advantage or an Achilles heel.
Cassius Winston was one of the most improved players in the Big Ten this year, scoring 12.6 points per game on better than 52 percent shooting from 3-point range. He shoots 89 percent from the free-throw line and led the conference with 6.8 assists per game.
But Winston struggles defensively, as demonstrated in Michigan State's Big Ten Tournament exit against rival Michigan. Zavier Simpson, who hasn't been a great offensive weapon for the Wolverines, consistently beat Winston off the dribble and opened up Michigan's perimeter shooters.
When Tom Izzo is forced to go to Lourawls Nairn Jr., the Spartans' offense takes a huge hit, as he averages just 1.8 points in 17.4 minutes per game.
Winston is good enough offensively to lead Michigan State deep in the tournament, but he has to hold up defensively to stay on the court as much as possible. That could start Friday in a matchup with Bucknell guard Stephen Brown, who averages 14.9 points per game.
3. How will Bucknell get shots off?
Michigan State went through ups and downs this season, just like any team not named Virginia. But one thing stayed consistent: The Spartans block shots.
Michigan State led the nation with 7.36 blocks per game, led by Jackson's 3.2 and Nick Ward's 1.4 average. Size is a huge advantage for Michigan State, especially against a much smaller Bucknell team.
If Michigan State gets the defense in order against Bucknell, it could face a major test Sunday in a possible matchup with TCU. The Horned Frogs have a 6-foot-11 center, Vladimir Brodziansky, who averages more than 15 points per game.
Brodziansky is a strong finisher and a great free-throw shooter. Jackson and his teammates need to continue the block party against Bucknell to prepare for the test.
4. Which Nick Ward will show up?
Despite all the NBA talent on Michigan State's roster, Ward is one of the biggest X-factors.
He averages 12.6 points and 7.2 rebounds per game, but Ward is tremendously inconsistent for an impact player. At times, he looks like MSU's best player, such as a four-game stretch in December when he scored 79 points on 32-34 shooting.
Then there are times when Ward is completely ineffective. In the Spartans' only three losses since November, Ward scored a combined 13 points on 4-12 shooting. He had more fouls (nine) and more turnovers (six) than field goals in those three games.
When Ward is in foul trouble or playing poorly, Michigan State is a vulnerable team. But when he's playing well, complimenting Jackson and Miles Bridges in the front court, there are very few teams that can stop Michigan State's offense.
If the Spartans earn a rematch with Duke in the Sweet 16, it could be a welcome one for Ward, who dropped 19 points on the Blue Devils in November. But if Ward plays poorly, Michigan State might not survive beyond that point.
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