EAST LANSING - The Michigan State women's basketball team will be in familiar territory and on familiar ground when they make their fifth straight appearance in the NCAA Tournament.
The Spartans, who will be participating in the program's 13th overall trip to the Big Dance, earned a No. 5 seed - for the third time in program history - when the tournament's pairings were announced on Monday night.
MSU, which finished the season tied for third in the Big Ten before making it all the way to the conference tournament's title game, drew Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference champion and mid-major power Marist College, a perennial NCAA Tournament participant.
The Spartans (24-8) and Red Foxes (26-6) will play at approximately 1:30 p.m. on Saturday (ESPN2).
And the venue they will be playing in will be the Comcast Center in College Park, Maryland, the same arena they made last season's first round appearance and exit in when, as a No. 10 seed, they fell to No. 7 seeded Louisville 67-55.
"I felt good about the way we finished and how hard we fought and feel good that we have an opportunity to go back to a place we were exactly one year ago,'' said MSU coach Suzy Merchant, in her sixth season. "I definitely felt like we deserved to be somewhere around a (No.) 6 (seed) because we did not have a bad loss this year and had some key wins, especially late. And the way we finished, I thought we finished strong and we did a lot of things over time that I felt like should be rewarded.''
Additionally, while most coaches usually don't know much about their first round opponent, especially when it's a little publicized liberal arts school in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Merchant, who cut her coaching teeth in the mid-major world, was very familiar with the Red Foxes, the program's success and their longtime coach Brian Giorgis, who was named the MAAC Coach of the Year for a record seventh time in his 11-year career.
"I know a lot about Marist,'' Merchant said. "Brian's an incredible coach and they have been NCAA slayers for many years. They are a very good team that shoots a lot of 3s. They have four seniors, two of them are redshirt seniors, and they are extremely well coached. They play a style that's very difficult to defend. They play that motion-type (offense). Everybody can shoot it, pass it, handle it, posts included, and that makes it difficult (to stop). They have some high level players and play very well together.''
Marist, which will be making its eighth-straight trip to the Big Dance, finished the MAAC as regular season and conference tournament champions.
Marist won its eighth consecutive MAAC title, and ninth in 10 years, going 18-0 in conference play by outscoring their opponents by an average of 20.0 points per game.
The Red Foxes are led by senior guard/forward Elizabeth Beynnon and junior guard Casey Dulin, who average 12.2 and 10.2 points, respectively.
While Beynnon and Dulin are the team's only two double-figure scorers, four more players average at least 7.1 points a game, including junior guard Leanne Ockenden, the MAAC's Defensive Player of the Year and redshirt senior guard/forward Kristina Danella, the league's Sixth Player of the Year.
The Spartans, who put nobody on the Big Ten's first or second all-conference teams and didn't have anyone earn Big Ten Player of the Week honors all season, will enter the NCAAs with a balanced attack that also features just two players who average double-figure points and five others who add between 6.2 and 9.2 points per game.
"We don't have one great (player) but we've got a group of them that contribute at that something-to-prove level,'' Merchant said. "And I think that's when we're at our best, is when we play with something to prove.''
Junior guard Klarissa Bell is MSU's leading scorer at 11.4 points per game, while senior guard Jasmine Thomas, the Spartans' steadiest player for much of the season, adds 10.4 points a game.
Four Spartans, led by senior forward Courtney Schiffauer's 6.1 a game, average at least five rebounds a game
If the Spartans defeat Marist, they will most likely meet the host team and future Big Ten regular Maryland, which is coached by former Minnesota coach Brenda Frese, at 7 p.m. on Monday (ESPN2).
The Terrapins (24-7) received a No. 4 seed and will play No. 13 seed Quinnipiac (30-2) in Saturday's other first round game.
As for the Spartans chances of making a run past the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2009, Merchant refused to look ahead but did say the time between MSU's disappointing 17-point loss in the Big Ten title game to Purdue and Monday's announcement gave her team a chance to regroup physically, mentally and emotionally.
"I feel like we're in a really good position and people have had a chance to look in the mirror a little bit and see what they can do a little bit better for our team,'' she said. "And there's been a group of them that have been the core staple and if you're gonna win at this time of year, you've gotta win with everybody. You need everybody showing up and you can't be afraid of lack of performance or putting yourself out there.
"I think any time we've been on the side of being aggressive and attacking, we've come out okay. The biggest thing for us is that we need to do a good job night in and night out defensively. That's kind of been what we've laid our hat on. For us, everything starts with defense and rebounding.''