After surviving the NCAA tournament’s first weekend by defeating both Delaware and Harvard, the No. 4 Michigan State Spartans (28-8) will move on to face the No. 1 Virginia Cavaliers (30-6) in the Sweet 16.
Tip-off for the game set to take place in Madison Square Garden is scheduled for Friday at approximately 9:57 pm ET and will be televised on TBS.
For Michigan State, after a season filled with injuries, chemistry issues, and disappointing losses, it’s amazing what five straight wins in one-and-done season can do for a team. Since winning the Big Ten tournament and advancing to the Sweet 16, it appears they’ve figured some things out, as they are now playing some of their best basketball of the season.
On the other hand there’s Virginia, one of the most balanced attacks in the nation. And while the Spartans have certainly been plagued by the injury bug this season, the Cavaliers have been relatively injury free, as eight players on the Virginia roster have been able to appear in all 36 of the team’s games.
Guards Malcom Brogdon and Joe Harris lead the Cavs in scoring at 12.6 and 11.8 points per game respectively for an offense that averages just 66.4 points per game, but to understand what makes this Virginia team so good, you have to take a look at the other end of the floor.
When it gets right down to it, what’s allowed Virginia to have the kind of season they’ve had this year, one in which they’ve lost just one game since Jan. 13 and gone 19-1 since then, is the specific brand of defense they play. The Cavaliers give up just 55.5 points per game, good enough to rank them first in the country.
But ask MSU basketball coach Tom Izzo what strikes him most about this defensive-minded Virginia team, and it’s the sheer size of the Cavaliers.
“They are big,” Izzo said. “I mean, you start looking at subs and the guards and it’s 6’6″, 6’8″, and when you start looking, they’ve got one 6’2″ guy and everybody else is 6’5″ and bigger, very big, very physical team, very strong team.”
“Inside they just keep rotating bodies, and they’re big bodies.”
Virginia big men Akil Mitchell (6.9 ppg, 7.0 rpg) and Anthony Gill (8.8 ppg, 4.1 rpg) do much of the damage on the inside for the Cavaliers but even the 6-foot-6 Brogdon finds a way to get it done on the inside, where he hauls in 5.4 boards a game.
For Michigan State, they’ll counter on the inside with a pair of big men who took turns the first weekend of the tournament having themselves big games. Senior big man Adreian Payne exploded for 41 points and 8 rebounds in the first game against Delaware as Branden Dawson followed Payne’s performance up with a 26 point, 9 rebound game against Harvard.
And it’s in his two inside guys, Dawson and Payne, which has given Izzo the confidence that his team can withstand the size of the Cavalier’s big men
“I think (we) match up pretty well at the start. Even though Mitchell is a little bit bigger, Dawson is strong and he can handle that. I think in Payne’s case, I’m hoping there’s a little advantage for us there. So I do think we match up pretty well. Their wings are a little bigger than ours, point guards are both the same. It’s a pretty good match‑up,” Izzo said, while also going on to bring up the point that it’s when Virginia starts subbing in all their 6-foot-6 and 6-foot-8 guys that play almost like perimeter players, that’s when their size becomes most impressive.
But if there is one advantage Michigan State should have with their big men, it’s Payne’s shooting ability. How comfortable the Virginia inside guys will be coming out and guarding Payne on the perimeter will be key in the outcome of this game, as he’s shown the ability to both knock down the three (at 43.8 percent) but also drive around the opponent at times.
“I’m excited,” Izzo said. “You get a chance to play a No. 1 seed. You get a chance to play in New York City where the tournament hasn’t been played in long, long time.”
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