Michigan State took down two very good double-digit seeds this weekend to advance to the East Regional in New York City at the ever famous Madison Square Garden. The 4-seed Spartans (28-8) will face the 1-seed Virginia Cavaliers (30-6) Friday night at approximately 9:57 pm ET. The Cavaliers are the ACC regular season and tournament champions, and are the only ACC team left remaining in the tournament. They were challenged by the 16-seed Coastal Carolina in their first game, and actually trailed at halftime 40-35. However, they responded with a strong second half performance to win 70-59. Last night they defeated the 8-seed Memphis fairly easily by a score of 78-60.
The Spartans started off the tournament with a dominating 93-78 victory over the 13-seed Delaware Fighting Blue Hens. Behind Adreian Payne’s 41 points, the Spartans pretty much dominated this game from start to finish, and the 15-point winning margin really wasn’t a great indicator of the Spartans dominance.Delaware coach Monte Ross said in regards to Adreian Payne, “He was probably the best big man that I have faced in 21 years of college basketball.”Regardless, the Spartans played well and moved on to the 3rd round. Michigan State faced the 12-seed Harvard Crimson (27-5), champions of the Ivy League, in the 3rd round. Tom Izzo’s club came out and jumped Harvard early, and really dominated the entire first half. Branden Dawson lead the way for the Spartans in the first half scoring 18 of his game high 26 points. He looked like a man among boys and the Crimson had no answer for him. The Spartans lead 45-33 at the half and looked to be cruising to an easy victory. However, just as I expected, the Crimson would not go away. They stood toe-to-toe with the Spartans in the second half battling all the way. They even took a 62-60 lead with under 10 minutes to play in the game. Michigan State, however, responded as championship teams do with a run of their own to finish the game. Travis Trice came down on the next possession and knocked down a big three to put the Spartans back into the lead by one. They never looked back from this point forward, and closed the game on a 20-11 run to win 80-73. GaryHarris scored 14 of his 18 points in the second half, and hit some monumental shots in critical situations for the Spartans. Wesley Saunders lead the Crimson with 22 points.
Now it’s on to New York, and the NCAA Tournament’s East Regional. This should be nothing new to this team’s core group of guys. As this marks the 3rd consecutive year that the Spartans have reached the Sweet 16. They fell to Louisville in 2012, and Duke in 2013. Pus, the Spartans would like to redeem themselves for a horrible performance they had in Madison Square Garden earlier this year. They looked awful in a non-conference loss to Georgetown in February. In addition, the Sweet 16 is a great accomplishment for this team, but it’s not the ultimate goal obviously. This team is not satisfied with the Sweet 16 or even the Elite 8. Their focus is to win two more games and advance to the Final Four in North Texas. Anything short of this goal will feel like a failure to this team.
The Spartans opponent is the top seed in the East Region, however, I believe that most people will favor Michigan State in this game over Virginia. In contrast to many ACC teams, Virginia plays much more of a Big Ten style of basketball. They are predicated on defense and toughness, but they also have a talented and experienced group of guys. They only average 65.8 points per game, which ranks 294th in the NCAA. On the flip side, they only give up 55.5 points per game, which ranks 1st in the NCAA. I believe this team is very similar to a Wisconsin, but are better defensively and not as good offensively as the Badgers. Ironically, the Cavaliers head coach Tony Bennett is the son of former Wisconsin head coach Dick Bennett. The Spartans defeated Dick Bennett’s Badger team 4 times in the year 2000 on the way to a National Championship. It’s tough comparing Virginia to any team, but if I had to pick one it would be a vintage Wisconsin team. The Spartans are averaging 86.5 points per game in their two NCAA Tournament games thus far. That is over 30 points more than the average score the Cavaliers have been giving up this season. Something is going to have to budge in this game. I believe if the Spartans can score in the 75-80 range, then they will be in a very good position to win this game and advance to the Elite 8. However, if the Cavaliers are able to dictate the pace of the game and force the Spartans to play this game primarily in the half court, then I believe Virginia will have the advantage. Overall, I believe the Spartans have too many guys that can score the ball for this Virginia team to dominate them defensively. If Adreian Payne, Gary Harris, and Branden Dawson continue to play at the level they are playing at, then the Spartans will be just fine. Especially the way the other complimentary pieces have been playing thus far, such as Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine. But just as any other good team, if the Spartans don’t play up to their potential they could be in trouble. As coach Izzo says, this time of year is about Surviving and Advancing, and that’s exactly what the Spartans need to do the rest of the way. Go Green!
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