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Michigan State returns to Spokane for NCAAs

UPDATED: Sun., March 16, 2014, 10:22 p.m.

Sparty is back, looking for more.

Four years ago, Michigan State came to Spokane Arena with the pedigree of two NCAA basketball championships but with the feel of an underdog in a second-round matchup with Maryland.

The Spartans won that game and didn’t stop until they reached the Final Four.

They’ll try again this week: 22nd-ranked and fourth-seeded MSU faces Delaware in a second-round East Region matchup Thursday afternoon.

That’s just one of four games Thursday at the Arena. The other East Regional game features fifth-seeded and 13th-ranked Cincinnati against Harvard.

In the West Region, fourth-seeded San Diego State takes on New Mexico State, which, like Michigan State, is cashing in frequent-flyer miles from its 2010 visit to Spokane. Meanwhile, fifth-seeded Oklahoma plays North Dakota State.

The winners will play on Saturday.

And while No. 8 San Diego State will be the highest-ranked team in Spokane, Michigan State is already grabbing most of the headlines. After struggling late in the season, a deep, talented MSU squad rolled through the Big Ten tournament and steamrolled Michigan 69-55 in the title game.

Another headliner will await them: Spokane resident and former Spartans coach Jud Heathcote, who guided Magic Johnson and company to the 1979 NCAA title. As MSU struggled, it was Heathcote who told the media that Spartans coach Tom Izzo would right the ship and, in a year of national parity, guide it back to the Final Four.

Little did Heathcote know that the ship would sail back to Spokane.

Also awaiting the two-time NCAA champions is a Delaware team that’s never won an NCAA tournament game in four tries, but comes in with 19 wins in its last 21 games. The Blue Hens are balanced, too, getting at least 18 points a game from three different players.

“We score from the time we get off the bus,” Delaware coach Monte Ross said Sunday. His team averages 79.5 points a game – 24th in the nation.

In the first game of the day, Cincinnati – only 3-3 in its last six outings – faces a similar task against an undermanned, veteran Harvard squad that’s known for tough defense and balanced scoring. Cincinnati’s Bearcats also face a long trip to Spokane, one that wasn’t in their travel plans during a 15-game winning streak that ended last month.

“All the way to Washington is crazy,” senior guard Sean Kilpatrick told the Cincinnati Enquirer on Sunday. “We’ve just got to take care of business.”

In the West Region, San Diego State comes to Spokane with the second-best defense in the nation, holding opponents to just 56.6 points a game while nabbing better than seven steals.

The Aztecs will face a New Mexico State team that’s won nine of its last 10 games, including a 77-55 drubbing of Idaho in the Western Athletic Conference title game.

In the other West game, Oklahoma, which struggled to a 6-4 finish in the rugged Big 12, plays North Dakota State, which rolled through the Summit League regular season and tournament by winning nine of its last 10 games.

Said North Dakota State forward Marshall Bjorklund: “We didn’t come this far to lay down. “We’re going to go out there and give them our best shot.”

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