Previewing Michigan State vs. Virginia in the Sweet SixteenPosted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on March 28th, 2014
It’s been an enigmatic season for Michigan State due to a host of injuries and resulting inconsistent play. For seniors Keith Appling and Adreian Payne, it’s been four years without a Final Four, a relative disappointment. Stress the word “relative” here, because compiling a record of 103-40 over four years would be roundly successful in 99 percent of other programs. But in East Lansing, a team that starts the season ranked #2 and ends up as a #4 seed in the NCAA Tournament is viewed as disappointing. As for those seniors — despite two Elite Eight and one Sweet Sixteen appearance — failure to make the Final Four this year would earn this group the distinction of being the only class in the Tom Izzo era without a trip to the NCAA Tournament’s final weekend. Tonight Sparty looks to remove that monkey off its back as it meets Virginia in the Sweet Sixteen.
The Cavaliers are not regulars in the NCAA Tournament’s second weekend; it’s the school’s first appearance in the Sweet Sixteen since 1995. This run marks the culmination of all that was expected of head coach Tony Bennett when he was hired from Washington State five years ago. While he had only made one NCAA Tournament appearance in the previous four seasons, a trip back to the Big Dance and a top four finish in the ACC was expected from this squad due to its top five scorers returning. Bennett’s team far surpassed expectations by sweeping the ACC regular season and tournament, which garnered the Cavaliers a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. What may be most shocking is that Bennett accomplished all of this with a system traditionally more tailored for the Big Ten than the up-and-down ACC (although in some ways that is changing there too). Their slow-paced – averaging 61 possessions per game, near the very bottom nationally – and defensive-focused system has stifled some high-powered offenses in that league.
In order for Michigan State to win tonight, its offense will have to be running on all cylinders. As we saw in the Cavaliers’ recent game against Memphis, when the Virginia defense has the opponent’s system figured out, they have the ability to put the full clamps on and get consistent stops. So it’s imperative that Appling resumes his role as one of the best point guards in the country and balances the team’s offense — between feeding Payne down low, or getting it Gary Harris or Travis Trice for a three-ball — in order to keep the Cavaliers’ defense guessing. Also, the recent excellent play of Branden Dawson will need to continue if Sparty’s going to neutralize Virginia’s ability to deny their opponents offensive rebounds (fifth in the country). Dawson and Payne will need to return to th rebounding prowess of previous Izzo teams and collect as many misses as they can get; against a defense like Virginia they’ll need to lead in the shots taken category.
While a majority of brackets have the Spartans winning this region, Virginia has been the #1 seed that has won its first two games in the most convincing fashion. The Cavaliers have been underestimated all season and are looking to continue to prove all of its doubters wrong. As good as Michigan State has been recently, the only other time it has faced a defense like Virginia was in games against Ohio State. They split those two contests with the Buckeyes, both of which went to the last second or overtime. And Ohio State’s offense is not nearly as effective as Virginia’s. Expect a close game, but hopefully when the buzzer sounds, we’ll have three Big Ten teams standing tall in the Elite Eight, a feat that hasn’t been accomplished since 2005.