|Michigan State wary of Bucknell|
Michigan State doesn't have to stray far during the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament. The Spartans' goal in their opener is to avoid going home with another shocking defeat.
The last time the Spartans had a high seed, 15th-seeded Middle Tennessee State blindsided them in one of the biggest upsets in tournament history two seasons ago. Michigan State, seeded No. 3 in the Midwest this time around, has a de facto home court advantage against No. 14 Bucknell at Little Caesars Arena in Detroit on Friday night.
"It's a team that, I look at them, they're as good or better than Middle Tennessee," Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. "Similar, except they're bigger. Their bigger guys can shoot it."
Michigan State came into the season on the short list of teams that could win the national championship. Despite losing to rival Michigan 75-64 in the Big Ten Tournament, they remain on that list. Michigan State (29-4) won the Big Ten regular-season title outright, led by two players expected to be lottery picks and a sweet-shooting point guard.
Sophomore forward Miles Bridges (16.9 points, 6.9 rebounds), who passed on a chance to be a first-round pick last June in order to chase a national championship, was named a second-team All-American by numerous organizations. Freshman forward Jaren Jackson Jr. (11.3 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.15 blocks) was named the Big Ten's Freshman of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year.
Floor leader Cassius Winston (12.6 points, 6.8 assists) would rank first in the nation in 3-point percentage at 52.6 if he'd attempted a few more.
Michigan State hasn't played in nearly two weeks and Izzo believes the layoff was beneficial to Bridges, who has shot below 50 percent in each of the team's last six games.
"I think the break was good for us," said Izzo, whose team lost to Kansas in the second round last season as a No. 9 seed. "I think we've wrapped our arms around all the things that we've gone through this year. We've spent a lot of time last week talking about a lot of things.
"So I think he's mentally in a great position. As we keep saying to him all year long, just be more aggressive."
The Bison (25-9) won the Patriot League regular-season and tournament championships. They crushed Colgate 83-54 in the title game March 7.
Bucknell is led by three highly productive seniors. Center Nana Foulland (15.4 points, 7.1 rebounds, 1.8 blocks) won the league's Player of the Year award last season. Forward Zach Thomas (20.3 points, 9.2 rebounds) won the award this season. Point guard Stephen Brown (14.9 points, 4.3 assists) was named tournament MVP.
"All three of them are 1,000-point scorers," Izzo said. "All three of them are phenomenal 3-point shooters. It's a very experienced team and probably eight of their nine guys can shoot threes."
Coach Nathan Davis' squad gave West Virginia a big scare in the opening round last season before succumbing 86-80.
"We've got a versatile team," Davis said. "We've got a deep roster. We've got a lot of guys who can guard."
Bucknell, which is seeking its first NCAA Tournament win since 2006, started the season 0-4 but has won 21 of its last 23 games.
"We're at a good place right now," Brown said. "Our defensive intensity has definitely turned up a little bit in the last few games, just realizing the potential that we have on our team."