Michigan State and LSU couldn’t enter this Friday’s Sweet 16 tilt with a larger disparity of coaching experience. The Spartans have been led by Tom Izzo since 1995. The diminutive and fiery Izzo has a national title and 7 Final Fours and 15 Big Ten Tournament championships (tournament and regular-season).
Meanwhile, Tony Benford is entering his 5th game leading the Tigers after replacing the indefinitely suspended Will Wade on an interim basis. LSU athletic director Joe Alleva states that Wade is not cooperating with an investigation that links him to the FBI college basketball corruption trial.
While Benford is just 3-1, he has LSU in its first Sweet 16 since 2006. Skylar Mays and the Tigers’ frontcourt shut down Yale NBA hopeful Miye Oni to just 5 points in a first-round win. On Saturday, Tremont Waters saved the day with a game-winning layup in the final seconds over Maryland.
After recovering from a halftime deficit to beat No. 15 seed Bradley, the No. 2 seeded Spartans cruised to a 20-point victory over No. 10 Minnesota on Saturday. This capped off a 7-game winning streak, which includes a pair of wins over in-state rival Michigan.
The winner gets an Elite 8 date with either Duke or Virginia Tech. Let’s take a look at LSU’s projected lineup going into Friday night (7:09 p.m. EST, CBS).
LSU Starting Lineup
- PG – Tremont Waters, 5-foot-11, 167-pound sophomore
- G – Javonte Smart, 6-foot-4, 190-pound freshman
- G – Skylar Marys, 6-foot-4, 200-pound junior
- F – Naz Reid, 6-foot-10, 240-pound freshman
- C – Kavell Bigby-Williams, 6-foot-11, 230-pound senior
Key Matchups to Watch
LSU’s frontcourt duo of Reid and Bigby-Williams will be an interesting matchup with the Spartans’ Xavier Tillman and Nick Ward. Reid, in particular, is a potential NBA first-round pick that’s scored 13.7 points and 7.1 rebounds a game.
Meanwhile, Bigby-Williams is a defensive specialist who swats 2 shots a contest. In terms of scoring output, he mostly finishes easy looks around the rim for 7.8 points per game.
Ward and Tillman, meanwhile, complement each other well. Ward is a banger inside who forces 7.4 fouls per 40 minutes. He sat out for much of February and early March due to a broken hand and has been limited in minutes due to the conditioning lost.
Tillman is an excellent defender who can switch onto speedier guards, as he did in 3 matchups against rival Michigan (5 in the regular-season finale). He also has added 30 points in 2 games in the tournament, so far.
The other key matchup is who LSU will put on Spartans guard Cassius Winston. He is one of the most underrated players in the country. In 3 games against Michigan’s excellent defense (particularly point guard Zavier Simpson), he racked up 64 points. He shoots over 40 percent from deep and has the second-best assist rate in the country.
Mays is an option to try to erase Winston. In terms of matching Winston’s offense, Waters will be the key instigator of LSU’s attack. His fearless shot selection has led to a team-leading 15 points per game, including the game-winning layup to beat Maryland last weekend.
He does only average 32 percent on threes, so he’s not always in sync. If he’s not, then Reid and Bigby-Williams will have to crash the offensive glass. As a team, the Tigers grab 36.8 percent of its own missed shots (No. 8 nationally).
LSU may be playing with nothing to lose in the wake of Wade’s suspension, but Michigan State has played with a chip on its shoulder all year long. I’ll take Izzo’s experience over Benford’s.
Prediction: Michigan State Spartans 75, LSU Tigers 67