The Legend vs. The Noob
Spartans: Tom Izzo, the longest-tenured Big Ten head coach — this is his 25th season in charge after 12 as assistant coach — is already in the Basketball Hall of Fame. His teams have made the NCAA tournament 22 years straight, winning it all in 2000 and making the Final Four seven other times. At 65, Izzo entered the season “reinvigorated” and told MLive, “It’s either a good thing or a bad thing, but they’re going to have me around for a while.”
Wolverines: After the revered John Beilein stunned Ann Arbor by quitting to take the head coach job with the Cleveland Cavaliers, the powers that be clearly wanted a feel-good narrative in turning to 47-year-old Juwan Howard, a power forward as part of Michigan’s famed Fab Five of the early 1990s. Howard has had his doubters, but so far he’s held on to Beilein’s recruits and seems to have earned their confidence.
Preseason vs. Reality
Spartans: Spartans fans discovered quickly the downside of being ranked No. 1 in the AP and USA Today preseason polls for the first time in school history: a target on their backs and insane expectations. By early February, after key losses to Kentucky, Virginia Tech and Duke — not to mention squeaking past unranked perennial cellar-dweller Northwestern — they were bobbing around in the teens.
Wolverines: The Wolverines were unranked to start the season. Then, over Thanksgiving break, as Michigan fans sought a balm for the misery of yet another blowout loss to Ohio State in football, the hoopsters stunned everyone with wins over North Carolina and Gonzaga in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. In a blink, they shot to No. 4 in the AP poll. After that, injuries and some sloppy play cost them, and by February they’d fallen off the charts again.
Who to Watch
Spartans: It’s all about senior All-American point guard Cassius Winston, who could become the first college player ever to amass 2,000 points and 1,000 assists. As of mid-January, he’d seized the Big Ten’s all-time assists record. The suicide of Winston’s younger brother in November has hung over the squad this season, but down the stretch, last season’s Big Ten Player of the Year seemed to focus on taking his team as far as possible.
Wolverines: When he’s on fire (and not suspended), there’s nobody quite as entertaining in the Big Ten as point guard Zavier Simpson, who is as adept at finding teammates ready to launch 3-pointers as he is at stunning opponents with that eye-popping hook shot. The senior showed his mettle in a double-overtime win over Purdue in January, taking matters into his own hands late in the game when nobody else seemed able to find the hoop.
What Could Go Wrong During March Madness?
Spartans: The Spartans were ranked No. 1 in the preseason for good reason, but then a game like that early January blowout loss to unranked Purdue comes along and everyone scratches their heads. In that one, the team gave up 18 turnovers, including a bizarre moment when Winston just ran directly into his defender. The team went 0-for-9 from 3-point range in the first half. If that edition of MSU shows up, it’ll be an embarrassingly brief dance.
Wolverines: This squad is just full of surprises — good ones, like their fast start and bad ones, like the slump that set in in January after scoring machine Isaiah Livers was sidelined with a groin injury. Without him, shooting suffers significantly. The midseason losses also pointed out weaknesses in rebounding and other inside-the-paint defensive play. Still, Michigan has a history of pulling it together and, as in 2013 and 2018, overachieving their way into the Final.
What are your March Madness predictions? Let us know in the comment section!