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.