5 takeaways from the Spartans’ Sweet 16 victory over Virginia

Last night, the 4-seed Michigan State Spartans (29-8) defeated the 1-seed Virginia Cavaliers (30-7), 61-59, in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament. Here are my key takeaways from the matchup:

1. MSU combatted Virginia’s key runs

In a game that was relatively close for all 40 minutes, Michigan State was able to overcome numerous Virginia runs that seemed to have the Spartans stunned in the moment.

After Michigan State’s Branden Dawson knocked down two free throws with 9:01 remaining and broke the Spartans’ lead open to 23-13, Virginia went on a 12-0 run in less than six minutes to grab a 25-23 lead. At that point, Michigan State was starting to look stagnant on offense and lackadaisical on defense.

However, after the Cavaliers’  Anthony Gill hit a jump shot to give Virginia its first lead of the night, Michigan State got the juices flowing again on both ends and ended the half on a 8-2 run to take a 31-27 lead into halftime.

Out of the break, the Virginia defense did a great job of halting the MSU offense, holding them just to three field goals in the half’s first 10 minutes, and went on a 13-7 run during that same period to take a 40-38 lead.

Michigan State retaliated with a run of its own after the Cavaliers took a two-point lead, and went on an 11-2 run in about three minutes. The Spartans had a 49-42 lead after a Dawson layup with 6:13 left, and then the in-your-face defense of the Cavaliers started bothering MSU once again.

The Cavaliers’ Joe Harris got a layup out of a Virginia timeout with 5:49 remaining, and jump started a 7-2 Virginia run to tie the game at 51-51 with 1:53 remaining.

And very similarly to their stretch in the final minutes of the first half, the Spartans punched the Cavaliers back, and outscored them 10-8 in the final 1:31.

2. If you weren’t already aware, the Spartans are deep

If you were to tell me before the game that Michigan State would not only be able to hang with Virginia, but beat them when Keith Appling, Gary Harris, Denzel Valentine and Travis Trice combined for a total of 16 points and five turnovers, I would tell you that you need to stop watching basketball.

But last night’s performance proved that when healthy, the Spartans are the nation’s deepest team. Senior big man Adreian Payne scored 16 points on 5-for-12 shooting, and Dawson scored 24 points on 9-for-16 shooting and hauled in 10 rebounds.

Michigan State has a lot of guys that have the ability to impact the game in many different facets, and this tournament has done a great job of showing that.

3. The Cavaliers defense is as good as advertised

I’ve watched the Virginia defense lock up some of the nation’s top-tier teams on several different occasions this season. However, while I knew that they would come to play, I wasn’t sure that they would be able to cease a Michigan State offense that has so many weapons. And despite losing the game, the Cavaliers defense proved me very wrong.


MSU’s Ketih Appling (left) and Gary Harris (right).

Virginia held the Spartans’ best four guard to 5-for-16 shooting, and did a very solid job of containing the Spartans in transition. The Virginia defense rotates like none other, and there was a point where all five players on the floor for the Spartans looked completely exhausted.

I’m convinced that if the Cavaliers found a way to get past the Spartans last night that they would have been crowned national champions.

4. Travis Trice should be the starter

At this point in the season, and with MSU playing its best basketball, I could understand not messing up the flow of the team. But right now, Trice is playing better than Appling.

Since his wrist injury, Appling has been moving more east and west than north and south offensively, and because of that, he hasn’t been the same scorer or creator. Appling is rarely looking for his own shot, and without attacking the basket, he’s not opening up shots for others.

Trice has been shooting the ball phenomenally over the past couple of weeks, and his ability to attack the basket has been one of the more evident improvements for any MSU player from last season to this season.

Trice is playing very confidently right now, and Appling isn’t. Maybe bringing Appling off the bench is what it will take to light a fire under him again.

5. For the most part, the Spartans are back to playing solid defense

There was a long stretch over the final weeks of the regular season where the Spartans’ defensive woes were clearly the weak spot of this team. Last night, and for a majority of the tournament, the healthy Spartans are doing a much better job of rotating and getting back in transition.

There were times during Virginia’s first-half run where the Spartans were slow getting back in transition, but they looked very sound in the halfcourt for most of the night. The guards have done a good job of defending on the perimeter, and when they do get beat, they have the luxury of having two athletic freaks that defend the rim.

While Virginia looked as good as any team I’ve ever seen defensively last night, the Spartans didn’t look far off. Michigan State held its own defensively, except for a few runs by the Cavaliers, and seemed to be much more engaged as they near the national championship.