The last time the LSU basketball team reached the Sweet 16 it had to defeat a loaded four-team regional with wins against No. 1 seed Duke and No. 2 seed Texas to reach the Final Four.
Thirteen years later, the Tigers will undoubtedly face a similar challenge. Once again, Duke represents the No. 1 overall seed in the tournament and in the East Regional, but this time LSU won’t have to face the Blue Devils until the Elite Eight, if at all.
The Tigers (28-6) will first have to find a way to take a blue blood — one that many pundits believed deserved a No. 1 seed — in Michigan State (30-6).
The Spartans are led by legendary basketball coach Tom Izzo, who has led them to a 52-20 record, now in his 22nd consecutive trip to the tournament.
Izzo and Michigan State snapped a three-season streak in which they failed to get past the second round of the NCAA Tournament after a scare against No. 15 seed Bradley and a dominant 70-50 victory against Minnesota.
The most interesting matchup on the floor will likely be that between the point guards in LSU’s electric playmaker Tremont Waters — who sent the Tigers to the Sweet 16 with a game-winning scoop layup in the closing seconds of LSU’s 69-67 win against Maryland — and one of the best players in the country in MSU point guard Cassius Winston.
Winston shoots at a .471 clip from the field and better than 40 percent from the 3-point line to average 18.9 points per game. In addition to that, he makes the offense go, averaging 7.5 assists per game, making him one of the most efficient and effective point guards in the nation.
Where the Tigers will have an advantage is the post where Michigan State doesn’t play anybody over the height of 6-foot-9.
That doesn’t mean the Spartans aren’t effective down low, however. Kenny Goins averages 8.9 rebounds per game and Xavier Tillman adds 7.2 rebounds per game. Tillman does a lot of work on the offensive boards with an offensive rebounding percentage of 12.8.
Naz Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams, both standing at least 6-foot-10, will need to take advantage of their length on the boards, something they struggled to do against teams that look like the Spartans such as Florida and even Yale during the first round.
LSU will have to prepare for a team that’s built a lot like Florida — the only team to beat the Tigers twice this season — both in personnel as well as playing style.
The Spartans will try to slow the game down and likely put pressure on the Tigers by playing zone defense, something LSU has struggled with all season.
According to KenPom.com, Michigan State has the eight most efficient defense in the country with an adjusted efficiency rating of 90.3.
The one thing the Spartans struggle with on both sides of the ball is turnover percentage.
Michigan State turns the ball over on nearly 19 percent of its possessions while only forcing turnovers on 14.7 percent of its defensive possessions.
In order to earn a spot in the Elite Eight, LSU will have to find a way to limit Winston, rebound well and shoot at a higher percentage than it did in its first two games.
The Tigers played great defense in their first and second-round games, but that’s likely not going to cut it against the Spartans. Shots will have to fall and they’ll have to do a better job on the boards in order to play either Duke or Virginia Tech.
Photo courtesy of LSU Sports Information