Michigan State got its wish, but it could be a case of being careful what you wish for.
The No. 3 seed Spartans are staying close to home, opening the NCAA tournament on Thursday just 82 miles down the road from East Lansing at The Palace of Auburn Hills. They will play Horizon Conference tournament champion and No. 14-seed Valparaiso (26-7).
But theyre also in the Midwest Region, which experts believe is the toughest in the NCAA Tournament. Top-seeded Louisville and No. 2 seed Duke, a possible Sweet 16 opponent the following week in Indianapolis, are the favorites to win the region and advance to the Final Four in Atlanta.
The Midwest is the toughest region of all, ESPN analyst Dick Vitale said.
Vitales fellow analyst, Jay Bilas, agreed, saying, The Midwest is the strongest without a doubt.
Lets not get ahead of ourselves here, though. The Spartans must win two games to begin facing those formidable foes.
Im excited to be close to home, Izzo told reporters at the Breslin Center on Sunday, after getting his 16th consecutive NCAA bid. Its 90-percent positive. But theres always the other 10 percent keeping the players focused.
Having family and friends in attendance should bring a definite home-court advantage. On the other hand, going outside the region provides fewer distractions and better bonding.
MSU (25-8), after tying for second in the Big Ten regular season and losing in the conference tournament semifinals, must beat upset-hungry Valpo in order to advance.
Second-year Valpo coach Bryce Drew hit the biggest shot in school history to advance the No. 13 Crusaders past No. 4 Ole Miss in a 1998 NCAA tournament game. Jamie Sykes had the ball on the baseline with 2.5 seconds remaining and threw a 55-foot pass to Bill Jenkins, who caught the ball and passed it in one motion to Drew. He calmly drilled a three-point shot for a 70-69 upset.
I know Bryce a little bit, Izzo said. Hes got the shot ... and hes done a good job.
Hes also got a quality team that averages 20 3-point attempts per game.
Ryan Broekhoff, a 6-foot-7 forward from Australia, leads the Crusaders with 15.9 points and 7.3 rebounds. Hes made 82 3-pointers with 43-percent accuracy.
Kevin Van Wijk, a 6-8 forward from the Netherlands, averaged 12.7 points and 5.5 rebounds, and point guard Erik Buggs was the Horizons tourney MVP, scoring 22 points in the championship game against Wright State.
This will be a formidable foe to start out with, Izzo said.
The Crusaders are riding an emotional high, and their coach provides a good human interest story beyond his storybook-ending shot 15 years ago.
Drews parents -- both cancer survivors -- were each given an opportunity to snip off a loop of the nets after winning the conference tourney for the schools first trip to the NCAA tourney since 2004. Homer, who coached Bryce, and Janet Drew always have made basketball a family affair.
The Spartans wont face Michigan, but they will share the Palace with the Wolverines on Thursday. Michigan plays South Dakota State in a South Regional opener on the same billing. After the weekend, the Spartans and Wolverines won't play on the same court again unless they advance to the Final Four.
Its neat for the state, Izzo said. Its great for barbershop talk and everything else. Itll be interesting to see who pulls for who.
Izzo planned to get his team focused with a Sunday night meeting and said shooting guard Gary Harris should be available after having his left shoulder pop out in Saturdays tournament loss to Ohio State. The Buckeyes went on to beat Wisconsin for the championship on Sunday.
Gary is the one that worries me, Izzo said. Its no question hes not the same. Its not a major setback Its his left arm and he shoots with his right.