Tom Izzo and Michigan State begin their bid for the 2021 NCAA Tournament championship one game behind the vast majority of the 68-team field.
That’s because the Spartans — looking for their first national title since the 2000 tournament — will start March Madness as a First Four team, paired up against UCLA in the final game of the NCAA’s opening round on Thursday.
It’s a curious placement for the Spartans — even with their 15-12 record and 9-11 campaign in the Big Ten. That’s because Michigan State boasts some of the best wins of any tournament team this season, including four NCAA Tournament-bound teams. Among those teams are Illinois (seeded No. 3 overall), Michigan (No. 4), Ohio State (No. 6), all teams the Spartans beat on Feb. 23 or later. They also beat Rutgers (No. 40) on Jan. 5.
It’s true Izzo’s Spartans squad — which started the season ranked No. 13 in the AP Top 25 and climbed as high as No. 4 — suffered numerous losses. But all but two of them occurred against Quad 1 teams. Michigan State went 5-10 against Quad 1 teams (only 16 teams had more wins), 4-2 against Quad 2 teams and a combined 6-0 against Quad 3 and 4 teams.
Michigan State’s placement looks particularly egregious when you see teams such as Syracuse and Utah State, also 11 seeds, get into the tournament without a play-in game. The Orange beat only one ranked opponent all season, won only two road games and boasts a 1-7 Quad 1 record. Utah State is similarly credentialed in the latter metric, going 2-5 against such teams.
Said Sporting News’ Mike DeCourcy on the Spartans’ First Four placement:
“This is the second consecutive NCAA Tournament in which one of the committee’s most egregious botches involved the Spartans. The first came infamously in the 2019 tournament, when they were assigned the No. 2 seed in the East Region (which contained No. 1 overall seed Duke and superstar Zion Williamson) rather than the Midwest (which did not) because it was 120 miles closer from East Lansing to D.C. The single location in 2021 (Indiana) meant we could expect to be spared such absurdity, and generally we were.
But placing the Spartans into a First Four game with UCLA made zero sense with less accomplished teams such as Utah State and Syracuse placed directly into the first round. None of those teams was exceptional, but MSU defeated NET No. 3 Illinois, No. 4 Michigan and No. 8 Ohio State. There are teams on the No. 2 seed line that can’t approach those wins. Syracuse won a single Quad 1 game and griped that its only such opportunities came in road games, as if it were forbidden to win at least one more. Utah State’s only victories against the field came in a home series against No. 7 San Diego State. This one is baffling.”
Michigan State fans likely won’t be pleased with Mitch Barnhart’s answer as to why the Spartans were seeded as a First Four team, either. When asked how the committee came to its conclusion, the NCAA selection committee chair “facetiously” said, “We thought it would be a heck of a way to start the tournament off.”
That much, at least, is true. Michigan State and UCLA (17-9, 13-6 Pac-12) are two of college basketball’s most historic blue blood teams. Joking or not, however, Barnhart’s answer isn’t going to make him any friends in Michigan. Actually, Wolverines fans may be able to enjoy a little schadenfreude at the expense of their rivals.
And, if those teams somehoe meet in the Elite Eight, Michigan will be one game fresher than the Spartans.