#3 MSU Spartans vs. #14 Bucknell Bison
Friday (3/16) 7:10p EST, CBS
Michigan State Spartans
Player to Watch: Miles Bridges. On a Spartans squad wealth with offensive pieces, Bridges stands out above the rest. The sophomore combo guard, who averages 16.9 PPG, is one of the more polished talents in college basketball. His offensive skill set is extremely versatile, which is why it can be frustrating at times to see him settle for shots on the perimeter. Bridges is a much-improved shooter from out on the wing, but his ability to drive the basket is arguably the biggest strength of his game. If Bridges could be more aggressive and assertive, I see MSU making a deep run this March.
X-Factor: Turnovers Michigan State has a tendency to turn the ball over a high number of times, which is the Spartans’ only glaring weakness. In MSU’s 4 losses this season, the Spartans have committed a combined 55 turnovers to their opponents’ combined 31. If Michigan State can avoid shooting themselves in the foot, I don’t see the Spartans on upset alert tonight.
Key Stat: 19.3 APG Michigan State averages more assists per game than any other team in the country. Considering the talent on this team, the Spartans’ ability to share the ball and spread the court is lethal. A balanced attack is typically an efficient one, and in MSU’s case, arguably one of the most efficient in the nation. When everyone is getting involved, these is no stopping this team.
Player to Watch: Zach Thomas. Thomas, the Patriot League player of the year, averages 21 points and 9 rebounds a game, which both lead the team. The senior forward is an incredibly tough matchup; he can hit shots from out on the perimeter and operate in the paint, and get to the line about as well as any big man in the country. It is somewhat concerning that Thomas’ last two performances were arguably his quietest of the season (6 points on 2-for-4 shooting vs Boston U, 5 points on 1-for-7 shooting vs Colgate) but I nevertheless expect him to be raring to go for the biggest game of his life.
X-Factor: Momentum Bucknell comes into the NCAA Tournament on an absolute tear. In back-to-back dominant wins over Boston U and Colgate in the Patriot League Tournament, the Bison won by 31 and 29 points, respectively, meaning that Bucknell’s confidence will be at an all-time high heading into this first-round matchup.
Key Stat: 3pt efficiency According to haslametrics.com, Bucknell is 231st in the country in 3-point percentage. The Bison, however, have been connecting from downtown as of late. Against Colgate in the Patriot League title game, Bucknell hit 13 of 28 (46%) from deep. If the Bison can replicate those numbers, Michigan State could be in trouble.
Michigan State 81, Bucknell 69: This won’t be the one-sided blowout people are anticipating. Bucknell is a dangerous team, one that is experienced, balanced, and extremely capable on the offensive end of the floor, especially when Thomas is delivering, as I expect he will. As much as I like the Bison, however, it feels like a massive stretch to take them here. I like the Spartans to win this game, and to cut down the nets in April.