One program is busy proving people wrong. The other is back where many always expected it to be.
That’s the essence of the matchup when No. 2 Michigan State takes on No. 3 LSU in the East Region semifinals of the NCAA Tournament on Friday at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C.
The Spartans, who are playing in their 14th Sweet 16 under coach Tom Izzo, had failed to get out of the first weekend of the tournament in each of the past three seasons but are back after bouncing Bradley and Minnesota in the first two rounds.
The Tigers, the regular-season champion of the SEC, were counted out by many when coach Will Wade was suspended indefinitely after he was allegedly caught on a wiretap discussing a possible payment to a player. Instead of crumble, the Tigers rebounded to beat upset-minded Yale then won in the final seconds over Maryland on Tremont Waters’ drive and scoop.
“It was a good weekend for us as far as winning,” Izzo said. “We had mixed feelings on how we played, then I watched the rest of the tournament and realized so many teams had struggles in games.
“We’re excited for the opportunity to play another weekend. There are only 16 teams left and the weather is getting nice, days are getting longer and we’re practicing at the right time of the year.”
It was reaching the point where getting this far was hardly a sure thing for a Michigan State team that is playing in its 22nd straight NCAA Tournament, the third-longest active streak behind Kansas (30) and Duke (24).
After reaching the Final Four in 2015, Michigan State lost as a tournament favorite in the first round in 2016 to Middle Tennessee State and followed that with two second-round exits - in 2017 to Kansas and last season to Syracuse.
Now that the Spartans have overcome the first-weekend woes, they’re focused on getting to the eighth Final Four under Izzo, something that starts with LSU but would include a win over either No. 1 Duke or No. 4 Virginia Tech.
“We do want to win the weekend and the only reason I do is I learned that from some great programs around the country,” Izzo said. “It’s what you do after you get your program to a certain level when winning a game in the NCAA Tournament doesn’t matter anymore.
“I know conventional wisdom says you have to win your first one before you win the second one, but that’s just not the way we operate. Today we’ll look at all three teams a little bit and we’ll try to figure out what they do. ... The goal still is to win the weekend and we’ll try to prepare that way.”
When it comes to winning the weekend, LSU (28-6) is starting to figure, “Why not us?”
Even with Javonte Smart cleared to return to the lineup, many believed the pressure of not having their coach would lead to a quick exit for the Tigers. Instead, interim coach Tony Benford has the Tigers believing.
Waters will have a marquee matchup with All-Big Ten point guard Cassius Winston. Both can score, control the tempo, and get after it on defense.
Benford is the first interim coach since Michigan’s Steve Fisher in 1989 to take a team this far in the tournament. It’s LSU’s first trip to the Sweet 16 since reaching the Final Four in 2006 and 10th overall.
“It’s huge for these guys,” Benford said. “They’re the ones that paid the price. They’ve been through a lot. We know the story of adversity these guys have gone through.”
—Field Level Media