March 28, 2014

By Jeff White (

NEW YORK — In a window seat on the charter plane that flew the UVa men’s basketball team to this metropolis Wednesday night, Akil Mitchell looked out and marveled at the bright lights of the city.

The Cavaliers had traveled by bus to each of their two previous postseason sites: Greensboro for the ACC tournament and Raleigh for the opening weekend of the NCAA tourney. Nothing against those North Carolina cities, but this trip felt different for the Wahoos, and not only because they’re about to play in the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1995.

“You get excited seeing all the lights,” Mitchell said, “and knowing all the history and knowing all the stuff about the city.”

Mitchell made those comments Thursday afternoon while standing in the home locker room at Madison Square Garden, where the East Region semifinals and final will be played this weekend.

“We’re in the Knicks’ locker room right now,” UVa sophomore center Mike Tobey said, smiling and shaking his head. “It’s a cool feeling.”

Even cooler for the `Hoos would be a win Friday night. At 7:25 p.m., No. 3 seed Iowa State (28-7) meets No. 7 seed Connecticut (28-8). At appromixately 10 p.m., No. 1 seed Virginia (30-6) and No. 4 seed Michigan State (28-8) will follow.

These will be the first NCAA tournament games played at the Garden since 1961, and the participants are pumped. Friday’s winners will meet Sunday in the East final.

“I think every player, every coach, anybody who plays basketball understands the significance and importance of this place,” MSU coach Tom Izzo said.

In any venue, the Sweet Sixteen would be a thrill, UVa senior guard Joe Harris said Thursday, “but the fact that we’re playing in MSG, it adds a little bit more something to it, and it’s very exciting.”

Harris is from Chelan, Wash. Also from the West Coast is another Cavalier, freshman point guard London Perrantes.

“I’ve never been in New York, never been to Madison Square Garden,” Perrantes said Thursday. “So the first time I’m in New York, I’m playing at Madison Square Garden. Especially [being] from the West Coast, it’s definitely a big thing for me, for my family, for everybody back home. It’s just the mecca of basketball. So much history here.”

In their fifth season under head coach Tony Bennett, the Cavaliers have made much history. They won the ACC regular-season title outright for the first time since 1981 and then won the conference tournament for only the second time (and first time since 1976). A win over the Spartans would send the `Hoos to the NCAA quarterfinals for the first time since 1995.

“It’s been fun,” said redshirt sophomore big man Anthony Gill, a force off the bench for the Cavaliers. “People in Charlottesville are loving it, and I’m so happy that we can bring something back to them like that, get them excited about UVa basketball again. I’m just thankful for this opportunity, and hopefully we can go out and get this win.”

Virginia’s No. 1 seed notwithstanding, MSU is a fashionable choice nationally to win Friday night — and beyond. Among the many prognosticators who picked the Spartans to win the NCAA title was President Obama.

“It’s not the first time we’ve been in this position,” said UVa redshirt sophomore Malcolm Brogdon, an All-ACC guard. “We’re going to embrace it and use it as fuel to the fire, use it as motivation going forward.”

Mitchell said being an underdog “takes some pressure off, and it’s a spot that we’re all used to being in. We’re not used to being the team that everyone expects to win. Not saying that we don’t enjoy the pressure of the moment, but it definitely helps relax some tensions a little bit.”

Either way, Mitchell said, “it doesn’t really matter. We still have to carry that same mentality throughout.”

Gill said: “We’re not worried about whether people project us to win a game or project us to lose a game. In this locker room, we know what we’re capable of.”

Since the calendar turned to 2014, Virginia has lost only twice. Michigan State lost four times in February alone, in part because injuries limited Izzo’s options. But the Spartans had a full complement of players again for the Big Ten tournament, which they won in emphatic fashion. Then, on the NCAA tournament’s opening weekend, MSU defeated Delaware and Harvard to advance to the Sweet Sixteen for the sixth time in seven years.

“They’re really versatile,” Brogdon said of the Spartans, whose stars include 6-10 senior Adriean Payne, 6-6 sophomore Branden Dawson, and 6-4 sophomore Gary Harris.

“They don’t really have any weaknesses. They shoot the 3 at basically 40 percent. They have bigs that can step out and shoot it, but also have bigs that can play with their back to the basket and be dangerous. They have guards that are really all-around. So they’re offensively talented, but also they get back and play defense. There are not many offensively talented teams in the country that do that, that play both ends.”

Another such team, of course, is Virginia, whose suffocating defense often overshadows a ruthlessly efficient offense.

“I think there are a lot of similarities between us and Michigan State,” Brogdon said. “I think it might play into our hands that way, because we know what we’re going against.”

The ties between Izzo and the Bennett family have been well-chronicled this week. The battles between Izzo’s Michigan State teams and the Wisconsin teams coached by Bennett’s father, Dick, were legendary, and Izzo worked camps run by Dick Bennett’s brother Jack.

“This is as home as it gets for me,” Izzo said, “as far as knowing who I’m playing.”

Bennett could say the same thing. As a young coach he looked up to Izzo, and Bennett’s admiration hasn’t lessened.

“He’s great for the game,” Bennett said. “He really is. And he’s advanced because his team, they’re efficient offensively and they don’t take possessions off and they’re tough-minded.”

Sounds like Virginia, doesn’t it? That’s another reason so many in the basketball world are eagerly awaiting the second game of the Friday night doubleheader at the Garden.

“It’s going to be a war of attrition,” Bennett said. “There’s definitely some similarities. Obviously, they probably run more. We try to [run] opportunistically, but it will be a battle [to see] who can execute best.”

Rugged defense has long been a trademark of Izzo’s teams at Michigan State, and his latest is characteristically strong in that area. Still, Harris said, the `Hoos are “not going to change up anything that we do offensively. We have no new sets, nothing like that.”

The Spartans played at the Garden last month, losing there to Georgetown. For the `Hoos, this will be their first game at the Garden since Dec. 4, 1999. Might they be rattled on such a big stage?

“We don’t ever want to go into anything nervous or scared,” said sophomore swingman Justin Anderson, the ACC’s Sixth Man of the Year. “But I think what we have to remember is that at the end of the day, no matter what either team has done, where either team has played, it comes down to playing a game at Madison Square Garden, and we can’t worry about the past, we can’t worry about the future.

“We just have to worry about the 40 minutes at hand, and I think we do a really good job of doing that, because I think we have the best coach in the country, who prepares us for moments like that, so we’re all bought in, we all believe, and we don’t really care about those other things.”

TIES THAT BIND: In its last appearance in the Sweet Sixteen, No. 4 seed UVa upset top-seeded Kansas 67-58 on March 24, 1995, in a Midwest Region semifinal in Kansas City, Mo. Those Cavaliers were coached by Jeff Jones, and their season ended with a loss to second-seeded Arkansas in the NCAA quarterfinals.

Jason Williford was a senior forward on that Virginia team, and Mike Curtis was a freshman guard. Williford, of course, is now one of Bennett’s assistants, and Curtis is UVa’s strength and conditioning coach for basketball. (Jones’ son, Jeff Jr., is a freshman walk-on for the Cavaliers.)

Like Bennett, Jones emphasized defense, and there are other similarities between the two Sweet Sixteen teams.

“That group was as tight and cohesive as this group,” Williford said Thursday. “That ’95 team that I was a part of, to this day we’re all very close, and I think this group’s got a lot of those qualities.”

The 1994-95 team didn’t take itself too seriously, Williford said, but the players were focused when they needed to be.

“It was a fun group,” Williford said. “We probably didn’t know the magnitude of what we were doing at the time, and I gotta imagine these kids don’t know, either. They’re just enjoying this process, enjoying the ride, and it won’t be till 20 years later — and hopefully it won’t take another 20 years to get back to a Sweet Sixteen — that they fully understand the magnitude of what’s going on.”

Curtis, too, remembers the camaraderie of the 1994-95 team, “the togetherness of the guys,” he said Thursday.

The Cavaliers have a similar cohesiveness this season.

“That’s probably the thing that jumps out to me the most,” Curtis said, “that everybody cares about everybody else, the older guys will take the younger guys under their wing, everybody gets along on and off the court. All those things kind of translate to togetherness when it comes to actually playing the game.”

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