Cover photo from @DavidsonMBB on Twitter.
Bob McKillop’s 33rd season with Davidson has been quite the story so far. The Wildcats were picked to finish 6th in the Atlantic 10 at the beginning of the season. Instead, they won the regular season and nearly won the conference tournament. Davidson started 1-2, including losing in the first round of the Myrtle Beach Invitational to New Mexico State. They then would string together 15 straight wins, which at one point led the nation. This win streak included their signature win, a victory over then-10th-ranked Alabama in Birmingham. This was their first top-10 win since Steph Curry and Davidson had two in the 2008 NCAA Tournament. Over this win streak, Davidson would also receive their first AP Top 25 ranking since 2015.
The fun continued after the win streak ended. In the game after their steak-ending loss, Bob McKillop coached his 1,000th game in a win over La Salle. Davidson ended up finishing first in the conference with a record of 15-3, their best record since joining the conference in 2015. The conference awards would rain in for Davidson. Luka Brajkovic, who was picked for the Third-Team All-Atlantic 10 in the preseason, won Atlantic 10 Player of the Year. This was Davidson’s fourth Player of the Year in eight seasons in the Atlantic 10. Hyunjung Lee would join Brajkovic on the first team, and Foster Loyer earned second team honors. Bob McKillop also won Atlantic 10 Coach of the Year for the second time in his career. Richmond would defeat Davidson in the conference tournament championship with some clutch buckets in the final minutes, but at 27-6, Davidson certainly had quite the NCAA Tournament resume. They earned a 10-seed on Selection Sunday, which marked their 15th time making the NCAA tournament and their third top-10 seed since the bracket expanded to 64+ teams in 1985.
When a team has 2 national championships, 10 Final Fours, and has been ranked in the AP Poll for 487 weeks, the expectation for that team is going to be high year in and year out. And, from that perspective, Michigan State has maybe fallen short of expectations. Really, fans’ expectations may have been the highest in the middle of the season. Tom Izzo and the Spartans started the year unranked, but by January 12, they were 14-2 with their only losses to teams that were ranked in the top 6. This was good enough for the Spartans to be ranked #10 in the AP Poll. Things then started to unwind a bit, though, and the Spartans lost 7 of their last 10 games of the regular season, causing them to lose their AP ranking. They finished 11-9 in a strong Big Ten Conference and would go on to make the semifinals of the Big Ten Tournament, ultimately losing to Purdue.
Although Michigan State perhaps peaked in the middle of the season, they still took down #4 Purdue and #12 Wisconsin toward the end of the season (rankings at the time of the game). In total, the Spartans had four top-25 wins. This earned Michigan State a 7 seed in the NCAA tournament, marking their 24th consecutive season making the NCAA Tournament in years in which it was played.
A major storyline of today’s game is transfer point guard Foster Loyer. Loyer was recruited by Michigan State and was the 71st ranked recruit by ESPN in 2018. Loyer would go on to average under 5 points per game in his three seasons with the Spartans and would leave for Davidson this past offseason. At Davidson, Loyer made an immediate impact, scoring 27 points in his very first game against Delaware. Not long after, Loyer would score 35 points against Northeastern, his career high. Loyer averaged 16.3 points per game, which led Davidson and ranked fourth in the conference. Loyer also averaged 3.3 assists per game. Perhaps most notably, Loyer led the nation in free-throw percentage at 93.4%, per the NCAA. He also shot 44.5% from three. Loyer made 73 threes this season compared to 43 over three seasons with Michigan State.
Today’s matchup is also a battle of two coaching legends: Bob McKillop and Tom Izzo. Of the 10 coaches in the tournament with 600 or more wins at the Division I level, these are the only two that play each other in the first round. The two coaches have never played each other. In fact, Sports Reference, which has head-to-head data dating back to the 1949-1950 season, has no recorded matchups between Davidson and Michigan State.
Davidson has four players who had double-digit points per game this season in Loyer, Lee, Brajkovic, and Michael Jones. Meanwhile, Gabe Brown, a 6′ 8″ forward, was the only player on Michigan State to do so. He had 11.5 points per game. That said, Michigan State is a much deeper team, with eight players averaging over 5 points per game, compared to Davidson’s five. Brown was Michigan State’s only All-Big Ten selection, making the third team. But Max Christie, a guard, won Big-Ten Freshman of the Week five times and made the All-Freshman Team.
KenPom ranks Davidson 37th in the country, with the 11th most-efficient offense and the 149th most-efficient defense. Meanwhile, Michigan State ranks 38th overall with a more balanced approach; their offense and defense rank 40th and 58th, respectively. Given how close the teams are, this 7 seed vs. 10 seed matchup should certainly be a good one. Davidson will look to follow in the footsteps of fellow-Atlantic-10 member Richmond, who upset Iowa, the Big Ten Tournament champion, yesterday as a 12-seed. The A10 is now 4-2 against the Big Ten this season.