March 26, 2014

By Jeff White (

CHARLOTTESVILLE — At Madison Square Garden, No. 1 seed UVa meets No. 4 Michigan State in an East Region men’s basketball semifinal around 10 p.m. Friday in New York City. The appearance in the Sweet Sixteen will be Tony Bennett’s first with the Cavaliers, but not his first as a head coach.

In March 2008, Bennett’s Washingon State team entered the NCAA tourney as the East Region’s No. 4 seed. After first- and second-round wins over Winthrop and Notre Dame, respectively, the Cougars ran into top-seeded North Carolina.

The program’s first trip to the Sweet Sixteen did not end well for Wazzu, which fell 68-47 to UNC in Charlotte, N.C. A year later, Bennett left Pullman, Wash., for UVa, where he has posted a 106-59 record and revitalized a moribund program.

As Virginia’s showdown with Michigan State nears, Bennett has reflected on how he prepared for that 2008 game with North Carolina.

“I definitely have thought about that and said, `OK, is there anything I’d adjust heading into this?’ ” Bennett said after practice Tuesday night at John Paul Jones Arena. “And there will be a couple little adjustments from that, just because you have a different team and you’re playing a different team.”

In the end, though, the Cougars lost not because they prepared poorly or were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the game, Bennett said. They lost because the supremely talented Tar Heels, whose lineup included Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Danny Green, were superior that day.

“We played a really good North Carolina team,” Bennett said, “and this is a really good Michigan State team.”

MSU, which pounded arch-rival Michigan 69-55 in the Big Ten tournament final, has won five games in a row. Injuries slowed Tom Izzo’s team during the regular season, but the Spartans are healthy now, and many prognosticators, including President Obama, have picked them to win the NCAA title.

“I don’t mind letting down alums,” Izzo told reporters with a laugh Tuesday in East Lansing, Mich., “but man, the president, I don’t want to let him down. That’s a little bigger.”

For the Cavaliers, this will be their first appearance in the Sweet Sixteen since 1995. The Spartans, whose NCAA tournament record under Izzo is 41-15, have reached the round of 16 for the third straight season and sixth time in seven years.

“I think when you look at their team and what they’ve done over the last five to six games, you can’t help but to be really, really impressed,” said Ritchie McKay, UVa’s associate head coach. “And it’s Tom Izzo, you know?”

McKay prepared the scouting report on the Spartans.

“They give effort every possession,” McKay said. “They’re very physical. Tenacious rebounders. I’m not sure about [Izzo’s] past teams, but this team is exceptional in transition. And they’re obviously well-coached. They’re not going to beat themselves.”

In the ACC, Virginia regularly faces some of the nation’s most storied programs, including North Carolina and Duke, so Bennett isn’t worried that Michigan State’s tradition will rattle his players. But that doesn’t make the Spartans any less formidable.

“You’re just going against a heck of a team,” Bennett said. “Again, you respect the team you’re playing, you respect the game, and you’re going to have to play well [to have a chance to win]. And this will probably be the best team we’ve played this year. It looks like it on tape.”

Bennett and Izzo, both sons of the Midwest, have known each other for years.

“I have a great appreciation for what Tony has done,” Izzo said, and the respect is mutual.

“He’s absolutely one of the best coaches,” Bennett said. “What he’s built, what’s he done is so impressive. You learn from a guy like that.”

As a young coach, Izzo learned from Bennett’s father, Dick, and uncle, Jack, among others, when he worked their camps.

In 1991, Izzo was an assistant under Jud Heathcote on the Michigan State team that met Green Bay in the NCAA tournament’s first round. The Phoenix’s coach was Dick Bennett, whose best player was his son, a sweet-shooting point guard. The Spartans edged Green Bay 60-58 on a last-second jumper by Steve Smith.

Izzo took over as the Spartans’ head coach in 1995-96. That was also Dick Bennett’s first season as head coach at Wisconsin.

In 1999-2000, when the younger Bennett was a volunteer assistant on his father’s team, the Badgers went 0-4 against Izzo’s Spartans. Their final meeting came in the NCAA semifinals.

“Just a war,” Tony Bennett said of Wisconsin’s 53-41 loss to Michigan State, which won the NCAA title two nights later.

“You know, until the day I die, of all the accomplishments we’ve had, I think beating Wisconsin that year four times will probably always rank as one of the top,” Izzo said.

For Virginia, this season already ranks as one of the greatest in school history. The Wahoos (30-6) swept the ACC’s regular-season and tournament titles. Then they dispatched No. 16 seed Coastal Carolina and No. 8 seed Memphis, respectively, in East Region second- and third-round games last weekend in Raleigh, N.C.

Now comes UVa’s first appearance in the Sweet Sixteen since 1995. Two wins at the Garden would send the `Hoos to the Final Four for the first time since 1984.

“Every weekend you advance, there’s more of a focus on it, it’s a higher level, it’s more intense,” Bennett said. “It’s what you aspire to, and you want to take it another step.”

Nobody wants that more than Bennett’s senior leaders, Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell, for whom any game now could be their last as Cavaliers. Sunday night in Raleigh, Harris and Mitchell helped Virginia maul Memphis 78-60 before an orange-dominated crowd at PNC Arena.

When Bennett substituted for Harris and Mitchell late in the game, he recalled Tuesday night, “I said, `We got more ball left.’ That’s how I greeted them when they came off the court. And that’s important. When you got guys like that, you want to coach `em as long as possible.”

UVa is 0-3 all-time against Michigan State. The most memorable game in the series, though, remains the one that was started but never finished.

On Nov. 28, 2001, at the Richmond Coliseum, Virginia took on MSU in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge game. The Cavaliers came in ranked No. 8, and the Spartans, who in 2000-01 had advanced to the Final Four for the third straight season, were No. 17.

The nationally televised game drew a near-capacity crowd at the Coliseum, where fans witnessed a bizarre scene.

With 15:04 left in the second half and UVa leading 31-28, officials halted the game because of condensation on the court. Unseasonably warm weather outside, combined with the hockey ice underneath the court, had created dangerously slick conditions. The game was never completed.

“Bambi on Ice,” then-Virginia coach Pete Gillen famously called it, and the fans weren’t any happier than the teams that night.

No such problems are expected at Madison Square Garden, one of the world’s most celebrated venues.

In the opener Friday night at the Garden, which hasn’t hosted an NCAA tournament game since 1961, No. 3 seed Iowa State (28-7) plays No. 7 seed Connecticut (28-8). The winner will meet UVa or Michigan State in the East Region final Sunday at a time to be determined.

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