Ranking MSU basketball’s top NCAA tournament wins: The Round of 64

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There’s no replacing this year’s NCAA tournament, which was supposed to begin Thursday and Friday. Reminiscing about tourneys past is all we’ve got in this COVID-19 March Sadness world.

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So let’s use what we have. As we arrive at each would-be round of the NCAA tournament, I’ll look back at Michigan State’s past in that round, ranking the Spartans’ most compelling wins and/or best performances round by round.

A couple things to note as we analyze previous first-round matchups: First, until MSU’s 1985 trip to the Big Dance, there were fewer than six rounds in the NCAA tournament, so, in this first round, we’re only looking at games in the Round of 64 era. Secondly, pre-Tom Izzo, MSU rarely made easy work of anyone in the first round, no matter the seed disparity. 

in 1986, as a 5 seed, the Spartans escaped 12-seed Washington by two points. Four years later, 1-seed MSU needed overtime to hold off 16-seed Murray State. The following year, the Spartans beat Wisconsin-Green Bay by a bucket in another 5-12 matchup. And, of course, MSU memorably lost to Weber State in a 3-14 matchup in Jud Heathcote’s final game in 1995. 

The drama is only one element of these rankings. Great individual performances and impressive showings that began epic runs are also considered.

Without further ado, here are MSU’s top five Round of 64 NCAA tournament games as I see them:

1. 1990 Southeast Region: (1) MSU 75, (16) Murray State 71 OT

Date: March 15

Location: Knoxville, Tennessee

The skinny: The Spartans came within a Popeye Jones punch of becoming the first No. 1 seed to ever lose to a 16 seed, pushed to the brink by Jones, a future 11-year NBA pro, who scored 37 points for Murray State. The Racers sent the game to overtime on a 3-point shot with 1 second left in regulation. Kirk Manns hit what turned into the game-winning bucket, a lucky-looking reverse layup with 43 seconds remaining in OT, before Jones missed a short jumper trying to tie it. 

“The last shot (Manns) made is one he works on all the time,” Heathcote quipped after the game. “The game is called horse. You go in blindly, throw it up off the glass with a little spin and say, ‘Your shot!’ ”

This was Steve Smith’s junior season, a Big Ten championship season, with a roster featuring familiar names: Smith, Manns, Ken Redfield, Matt Steigenga, Mike Peplowski, Mark Montgomery and Dwayne Stephens. That group won a then-school-record 28 games before losing a controversial Sweet 16 game to Georgia Tech. They nearly were remembered for something far more infamous. 

“I don’t think we overlooked them,” Manns said that day of Murray State. “But maybe we underestimated them a bit.”

2. 1998 East Region: (4) MSU 83, (13) Eastern Michigan 71

Date: March 12

Location: Hartford, Connecticut

The skinny: This might seem like a fairly uneventful win, but this was Izzo’s first NCAA tournament win and it came against an EMU team, led by the dazzling backcourt of Earl Boykins and Derrick Dial, that was a popular pick to upset the Spartans. MSU was impressive throughout, controlling the game and looking like the real deal at a time when that was still very much in question after an out-of-nowhere shared Big Ten title with Illinois. 

3. 1991 West Region: (5) MSU 60, (12) Wisconsin-Green Bay 58

Date: March 15

Location: Tuscon, Arizona

The skinny: Steve Smith hit a 19-foot jumper at the buzzer to extend his MSU career one more game. Smith also hit two 3-pointers in the final 3:28 to help the Spartans overcome a late 56-52 deficit. This Wisconsin-Green Bay team was coached by Dick Bennett, who nine years later coached Wisconsin to the Final Four, where the Badgers faced MSU. The Phoenix were led by star guard Tony Bennett, who played a while in the NBA and is now the head coach of defending national champion Virginia. Tony Bennett was held in check by MSU, hitting only 3 of 12 shots, but this wound up being dicey for the Spartans largely because Green Bay hit 8 of 10 3-pointers in the first half.

4. 2003 South Region: (7) MSU 79, (10) Colorado 64

Date: March 21

Location: Tampa, Florida

The skinny: Not a lot was expected out of this MSU team in the NCAA tournament. MSU’s dominating, fast-paced 15-point win over Colorado set in motion an Elite Eight run that included a 22-point second round win over 2-seed Florida. In rolling the Buffaloes, a young MSU group — featuring sophomores Chris Hill, Alan Anderson and Kelvin Torbert and freshman Paul Davis, Erazem Lorbek and Maurice Ager — showed that they might be a force in this NCAA tournament, and they were.

5. 2014 East Region: (4) MSU 93, (13) Delaware 78

Date: March 20

Location: Spokane, Washington

The skinny: Delaware big man Carl Baptiste probably still wakes up to visions of Adreian Payne. The Spartans’ senior center dropped 41 points on the Blue Hens, as MSU began its NCAA tournament run. Payne’s output broke Greg Kelser’s 35-year-old MSU NCAA tournament record of 34 points, scored against Notre Dame in the 1979 tournament. 

Coming this weekend: The Round of 32

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Contact Graham Couch at gcouch@lsj.com. Follow him on Twitter @Graham_Couch.

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