One step closer to reaching the Sweet 16 for the first time in program history, the Saint Louis Billikens will challenge the mighty Michigan State Spartans in the 74th annual NCAA Tournament from Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio.
Seeded ninth in this year's event, the Billikens registered their first NCAA Tournament win since 1998 with a 61-54 triumph over Memphis on Friday night. The victory made SLU 5-1 on neutral floors this season and 4-1 over the last five games altogether.
As for the Spartans, the top seed in the West Region, they were challenged by Long Island on Friday but managed to produce an 89-67 victory to advance. Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo is tied with the legendary Bob Knight for the most consecutive appearances in the NCAA Tournament by a Big Ten coach with 15, the team's streak ranking third in the nation behind only Kansas and Duke. The Spartans have made it to the Final Four eight times and have won the national title in both 1979 and 2000, generating a record of 53-24 all-time in the event thanks to the win in the second round, which also happened to keep the program a perfect 9-0 in games played on March 16 over the years.
This game marks just the second all-time meeting between these two teams, with the Billikens delivering a 74-64 win over MSU during the 1989 NIT at Madison Square Garden. SLU head coach Rick Majerus was at the helm of the Utah Runnin' Utes back in 1991 when his team posted an 85-84 double-overtime win against the Spartans, and 11 years later Majerus and Izzo locked up for a 73-61 victory for Utah during the second round of the NCAA Tournament in Cleveland.
The winner of this meeting will head to Arizona for the regional semifinals against Louisville, which defeated New Mexico last night by a score of 59-56.
As was expected, the defense by the Billikens took center stage on Friday as the squad held Memphis to just nine field goals in the first half and 38.9 percent shooting from the floor overall, not to mention 2-of-15 behind the three-point line. The Tigers didn't do themselves any favors by shooting only 10-of-17 at the free-throw line either. Offensively the Billikens were paced by Kwamain Mitchell who dropped in a game-high 22 points, converting 4-of-7 shots behind the three-point line, followed by Brian Conklin with 16 points, although he made just 3-of-9 from the floor and was tagged for eight turnovers without benefit of a single assist. Dwayne Evans contributed with a team-high 11 rebounds. Usually a reliable shooter at 52.7 percent from the floor on the season, Conklin leads the program in scoring with 14.0 ppg and is also one of the better rebounders on the squad with close to five per game, trailing only Evans (7.9 ppg) who is pulling down 7.4 rpg for a team that has been beating the opposition on the glass by an average of close to two rebounds per game this season and topping them on the scoreboard by 11.5 ppg as well. The defense has been the key ingredient for Saint Louis, the team ranking as one of the best in the nation with just 57.4 ppg allowed.
Draymond Green again proved why he was so deserving of being named the Big Ten Conference Player of the Year as he registered just the eighth official triple-double in the history of the NCAA Tournament and became the first player ever to have two such efforts (officially) in NCAA Tournament play, as assists were not kept as a stat until the 1980's. Green was huge in the win over LIU Brooklyn as he posted 24 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in the 22-point rout of the 16th seed in the region. Also coming up big for MSU was Derrick Nix off the bench with a career-high 18 points and eight rebounds in a mere 20 minutes of action, followed by Adreian Payne and Keith Appling with 16 and 10 points, respectively, as the team covered up a mere 3-of-9 shooting effort behind the three-point line by making good on 58.8 percent from the floor overall. As remarkable as Green's performance was on Friday, it came almost a year to the day that he delivered 23 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in a loss to UCLA in the 2011 NCAA Tournament. Green has been as dominating as anyone has been for his own team this season, leading the Spartans in rebounding in all but six of 35 outings, pacing the group in scoring 20 times and leading the way in the passing department in 13 games. In almost half of the last 15 contests Green has led the way in all three of those crucial categories.