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As Big Ten tournament begins, Michigan safe, but Spartans must win some games

 

March 6, 2017

 

As Big Ten tournament begins, Michigan

safe, but Spartans must win some games

 

By KEITH GAVE

Sports Director

 

Note to Michigan State from the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament Selection Committee: If you’re expecting a date to the prom this spring, you can start by winning a game or two in the Big Ten tournament this week. Only then will we give you some serious consideration.

 

And that still might not be enough.

 

That’s the sad truth in what has been a horrible year for one of the nation’s premier basketball programs. After a shocking opening-game loss last spring, when the Spartans were considered by many to be a lock for the Final Four, they followed it up with a rather uninspiring 18-13 season.

 

The result has the Spartans sitting very tenuously on the bubble. CBS bracketologist Jerry Palm has the Spartans a 10th seed in the Midwest – with an asterisk, meaning they clearly have more work to do to convince the selection committee.

 

It starts Wednesday with the bottom-feeders in the conference – Ohio State, Nebraska, Penn State and Rutgers, fighting for the right to play on.

 

No. 8 seed Michigan opens Thursday’s action against No. 9 Illinois. Tip-off at noon. The Wolverines are playing their best ball of the season, winning three of their last for and five of their last seven, including an impressive season-ending, 93-57 victory at Nebraska to finish 20-11. A win would solidify their place in the tournament – and win them a right to play top-seeded Purdue on Friday.

 

Michigan State, tied for fifth in the conference at 10-8 with Iowa and Northwestern, has the No. 5 seed because they beat both. The Spartans play the winner of the Nebraska-Penn State game at 2:30 p.m. Thursday.

 

The Spartans have never had a more important, must-win game at this juncture of the season. This is typically when a Tom Izzo-coached team is at its best. Instead, it ended the season with two three-point road losses against Illinois and Maryland.

 

But here’s the challenge for the Spartans: Even if they catch fire and win a couple of games (they would play No. 4 seed Minnesota on Friday), the selection committee could still snub them. Unless they win the conference tournament, the Spartans are destined to have a 14-loss resume.

 

There have only been seven 14-loss teams in the tournament in the last 23 years. Five of those were in 2011. And none since.

Now you understand more about all that hand-wringing in what so far has been a forgettable year in East Lansing. (And let’s not even get started on what’s going on with a football season in disarray after a 3-9 season.) For what it’s worth, Palm has seven Big Ten teams in the tournament, second only to the Atlantic Coast Conference, which has nine. He projects Purdue to be the Big Ten’s tournament champion as it was in the regular season. He has the Boilermakers seeded No. 4 in the South Region. His other at-large Big Ten Teams: Maryland, Michigan, Michigan State, Minnesota, Northwestern, Wisconsin. The tournament runs March 8-12 in Washington

 

Prediction: Izzo’s squad has given no indication it has any kind of magical run in it. Michigan State wins its conference opener, then fails to beat Minnesota for a third time this season, finishing 19-14 – and the Spartans’ impressive 19-year run of making the tournament comes to an end. John Beilein’s Michigan team beats Illinois in the opener but loses a squeaker to Purdue – and advances to the tournament again.

 

The real ‘world series?’

 

Michael Fulmer’s minor ankle sprain cost him a start for the Tigers on Monday, but it also may have limited his opportunities with Team USA in the later rounds of the World Baseball Classic, which got under way across the Pacific when Israel stunned host South Korea, 2-1.

 

With a motley cast of journeyman minor-leaguers, and without Jewish baseball stars like Ian Kinsler, Ryan Braun, Kevin Pillar and Joc Pederson representing their ancestral homeland, Israel managed to pull off a minor miracle. With only 800 registered baseball players in the country, Israel is relying mostly on Americans with tenuous ties to the religion.

 

After failing to make the last tournament, in 2013, Israel had to win a four-team qualifier in Brooklyn in September to earn its first berth in the tournament.

 

According to a New York Times report, the game was filled with walks, strikeouts and a combined 23 men left on base. After scoring on a bases-loaded walk in the second inning, Israel struggled to advance runners until the top of the 10th, when shortstop Scott Burcham hit a ground ball that the South Korean second baseman, Seo Geon-chang, could not handle, allowing pinch-runner Mike Meyers to score.

 

Israel is in Pool A, which also includes Taiwan and The Netherlands, being played in Seoul. The United States is in a pool with Canada, Colombia and the Dominican Republic in Miami March 9-13.

 

Team USA, which has never won the tournament, and the Dominican Republic, are the co-favorites heading into the tournament.

 

And while those who care about these things worry about guys like Fulmer and his sore ankle and whether he’ll be able to help the Americans win, it’s stories like tiny Israel winning its first-

ever game in the tournament that will help the sport so many of us love command a worldwide audience like soccer. Or even basketball.

 

So far, baseball isn’t even close. But today, in little Israel, they’re celebrating something special.

 

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