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GAMETHREAD: East Regional Sweet 16 No. 3 LSU vs. No. 2 Michigan State, 6:09 P.M., CBS

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Tigers and Spartans meet in D.C. with an Elite 8 berth on the line

Maryland v LSU Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

For the second game in a row, LSU will play an opponent from the Big Ten conference looking to, hopefully, duplicate the same success that came against Maryland in the Round of 32.

In LSU’s way is the No. 2 seed in the East Regional, the Michigan State Spartans, who may be the best team LSU has played all season. The deeper LSU goes in the tournament means the quality of opponent intensifies significantly and it doesn’t get more intense than the Spartans. Against Maryland, LSU played a middle of the road Big 10 team. A good team for sure, but certainly not at Michigan State’s level.

Michigan State is one of college basketball’s truly elite programs. The Spartans have made the tournament every year since 1998; Friday will be the program’s 20th appearance in the Sweet 16 and its 17th appearance since 2000. The Spartans under head coach Tom Izzo is as good as it gets in collegiate basketball and if LSU wins Friday, it’ll have truly earned it.

There aren’t many point guards in America that are just as good if not better than Tremont Waters, but Michigan State’s Cassius Winston is truly one of the finest in the nation. Winston averages 18.9 points and 7.5 assists and is a capable scorer from anywhere on the floor. Winston shoots 47 percent overall, 85 percent from the line and 40 percent from three. The stellar numbers made Winston a semifinalist for the Naismith Award, and, like Waters, a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, which is given to the country’s best point guard. If LSU wants to advance, it starts and stops with stopping Winston.

State is super reliant on Winston. Perhaps too reliant and that could be their undoing. The Spartans lost their second leading scorer guard Joshua Langford toward the end of December. Ever since, Michigan State has really only been playing two guards, Winston and Matt McQuaid. As Kyle noted yesterday, McQuaid is hardly a point guard and if something happens to Winston, who has been battling some smaller injuries, Michigan State’s out. The Spartans only play two guards and one primarily handles the ball. LSU, on the other hand, plays four guards and three have run point for the Tigers. If Waters, Skylar Mays and Javonte Smart can divvy up the ball handling load perhaps that saves their legs to check Winston defensively.

In the front court, the Spartans constantly have three forwards on the floor so LSU might have to use more Darius Days or Emmitt Williams to help out Naz Reid and Kavell Bigby-Williams. The Tigers typically play three guards and two bigs, but defending the Spartans might demand lineup changes. The Spartans rely on Kenny Goins and Nick Ward who has found a role coming off the bench for Michigan State. Goins is a senior and State’s leading rebounder while Ward is the team’s second leading scorer and a capable three-point shooter hitting at 36 percent.

Michigan State is as complete a team as it gets. The Spartans are top-40 in scoring, shooting, three-point shooting, assists and offensive efficiency. Michigan State can knock down shots reliably inside the three-point arc and outside it and Winston’s decision making is a key reason why the Spartans average nearly 19 assists a game, good for third in the entire country.

The Spartans are just as tough on the defensive end. Michigan State is 16th in defensive efficiency. Michigan State only allows opponents to hit 37.7 percent of its shots, third in the country, and 32 percent on threes, which is 32nd. The Spartans only allow 65 points a game and grab about 40 defensive rebounds a game. LSU is bad about letting opponents grab rebounds on the defensive end so if that’s your weakness, the Spartans are the last team you want to play.

But Michigan State is not a team without its flaws. The Spartans aren’t as strong at getting offensive rebounds as defensive ones, which is LSU’s strength. And the Spartans can get turnover happy, averaging 13 a game. Against Minnesota, the Spartans turned it over 22 times so look for Tremont Waters and Skylar Mays’ active hands to cause some havoc.

LSU faces arguably its toughest test yet this season in Michigan State but the Tigers have answered the call when facing opponents as good as the Spartans. LSU has wins over Kentucky and Tennessee, two Sweet 16 teams; LSU also took Florida State and Houston, two more teams that are among the last 16 standing, down to the wire and could have, if not should have, beaten both of those teams. The names Michigan State and Tom Izzo loom large in college basketball, yes, but LSU has the talent to beat anybody in the country. The Tigers have already taken down two giants this year, let’s see if they can make it three.