Syndication: The Tennessean

The stage is set for a blockbuster second-round NCAA Tournament game between No. 1 seed North Carolina and No. 9 seed Michigan State in the West Regional after the Spartans opened with a 69-51 victory over No. 8 seed Mississippi State on Thursday. The Tar Heels did their part with a 90-62 win over No. 16 seed Wagner in the afternoon to set up a clash of marquee brands on Saturday.

Tyson Walker led Michigan State with 19 points as the Spartans shot 50% from the floor against a strong Bulldogs defense. Jaden Akins and Malik Hall also reached double figures for the Spartans, who are making their 26th straight NCAA Tournament appearance. Michigan State held the Bulldogs to just 37% shooting and scored 29 points off turnovers in one of their strongest overall performances of recent weeks after losing five of seven games entering the Big Dance.

"It was an old-school win for us," Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. "All the guys from the past would have been proud because it was a tough, rugged game, and we haven't been bringing that all the time this year, and I thought we did a helluva job."

It will take another similar effort from the Spartans to have a chance against North Carolina on Saturday. UNC will have a significant home-court advantage for the matchup in Charlotte, North Carolina; then again, nothing comes easy this time of year against the Spartans. 

Thursday's win marked Michigan State's 20th NCAA Tournament victory in a game when it was the lower-seeded team. That's an all-time record, and 17 of those victories have come under Izzo. The tally includes a win over No. 2 seed Marquette in last year's second round as a No. 7 seed. Knocking off UNC as a No. 9 seed would mark an even weightier accomplishment, but the Spartans aren't your typical No. 9 seed. 

Why UNC should fear Michigan State

Beyond the program's illustrious NCAA Tournament history under Izzo, there are other reasons to fear Michigan State. The Spartans are one of few teams in this bracket that can go toe-to-toe with UNC in terms of experience and continuity among key players.

Michigan State began the season ranked No. 4 in the AP Top 25 after returning most significant contributors from last season's Sweet 16 run. The Spartans haven't been consistent enough offensively to reach preseason expectations, but they showed their potential in wins over teams like Baylor and Illinois, both of which are No. 3 seeds in the NCAA Tournament.

With three senior starters, including Walker, the team's leading scorer, the Spartans have the maturity to handle the national spotlight that will come with a second-round showdown against North Carolina. Walker scored 23 in last year's second-round victory over Marquette and turned in a strong opening performance this year by making 7 of 12 shots against Mississippi State.

Tar Heels scouting report

North Carolina is on a redemption tour after it became the first preseason No. 1 team to miss the NCAA Tournament a season ago. Seniors RJ Davis and Armando Bacot returned and guided the Tar Heels to the ACC regular-season title, which included a pair of victories over rival Duke. The duo combined for 42 points in Thursday's first round win over Wagner.

Both players were integral pieces in the Tar Heels' run to the 2022 national title game, and third-year coach Hubert Davis strategically filled in the gaps around them this season to bolster the supporting cast. Former Stanford forward Harrison Ingram and ex-Notre Dame wing Cormac Ryan are offering substantive contributions and more veteran leadership. Freshman point guard Elliot Cadeau is a pass-first player who has been a nice change of pace in the backcourt following Caleb Love's departure for Arizona.

While Michigan State has a strong March history and should be feared this time of year under Izzo, there is one significant historical note working in UNC's favor: these teams met in the same scenario in 2007 when the Tar Heels were a No. 1 seed and Michigan State was a No. 9 seed. North Carolina won the game 81-67.