By Jeff White (firstname.lastname@example.org)
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — When the field for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament was announced last Sunday night, the tantalizing possibility of a third-round game between Virginia and Michigan State, teams that clashed in last year’s Sweet Sixteen, generated considerable discussion.
The Spartans did their part Friday afternoon to ensure that matchup, defeating Georgia 70-63 at Time Warner Cable Arena, and the Cavaliers followed suit about two hours later, ousting Belmont 79-67.
The much-anticipated rematch, which CBS will televise, starts Sunday at 12:10 p.m., with the winner advancing to the Sweet Sixteen to play Oklahoma or Dayton.
“Hopefully it will be as good a game as I think it could be,” MSU coach Tom Izzo said Saturday.
Virginia (30-3) is seeded No. 2 in the East Region, and Michigan State (24-11) is the No. 7 seed.
“I just think it’s a blessing to be in this position we’re in,” UVa redshirt junior Anthony Gill said.
For the 23rd-ranked Spartans, this is their 18th straight trip to the NCAAs under Izzo, whose record in the tournament is 60-27. He’s been especially successful in this situation, posting a 19-4 record in second games of NCAA tournament weekends.
“His track record speaks for itself,” UVa coach Tony Bennett said.
This is Izzo’s 20th season at Michigan State, and the Wahoos have missed the NCAA tournament more often than they’ve made it during his illustrious tenure. But the `Hoos have steadily improved in six seasons under Bennett and now rank among the nation’s elite.
The Cavaliers have captured two straight ACC regular-season titles, and they’ve won 30 games in back-to-back years for the first time in program history. Their Sweet Sixteen appearance last season was their first since 1995, but they’re a win away from a return trip.
Count Izzo among Bennett’s admirers. At his press conference Saturday, Izzo lauded “how hard [Bennett’s] teams play and how solid they are. They’re about as mistake-free as a team [can be] on both ends of the court offensively and defensively. You’re going to earn your keep when you play them.”
Izzo speaks from experience. In their Sweet Sixteen matchup last March, Michigan State, the No. 4 seed in the East Region, edged top-seeded Virginia 61-59 at Madison Square Garden.
“It was a heck of a game,” Bennett recalled, and he said as much to Izzo after the final horn sounded at Madison Square Garden.
“It was a war last year,” Izzo said Saturday, “and I remember him walking by and saying, `That’s the way the game should be played,’ and you know what, I felt the same way. It was a dogfight right to the end and I think both teams played hard as well, and hopefully it will be the same tomorrow.”
That would surprise no one. Each team takes pride in its blue-collar mentality and work ethic.
“We’re similar programs,” Bennett said. “They run more than us, of course. They do different things, but I think we value a lot of the same things.”
But both teams still play rugged basketball, especially at the defensive end, and each returned a core of veterans from 2013-14. For the sixth-ranked `Hoos, those players included Gill, Malcolm Brogdon, Justin Anderson, London Perrantes, Mike Tobey, Evan Nolte and Darion Atkins.
“We’re not going to go into this game thinking of it as a revenge game or anything like that,” Gill said Saturday. “We are just going to go out there and play like we want to continue to keep moving on in this tournament.”
Anderson said: “We’re extremely hungry regardless of who we play. We know we have an opportunity, and that’s what this is all about.”
Michigan State’s postseason run ended in the Elite Eight last year. Among the standouts back from that team are Branden Dawson, Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine.
Dawson, a 6-6, 225-pound forward, had 24 points and 10 rebounds against Virginia at Madison Square Garden. Still, Izzo said, what happened in that game isn’t likely to have any bearing on the rematch.
“Every game’s a new game, everybody reacts differently,” he said. “It all comes down to the matchups and how you match up. My biggest concern is how we match up with the size of their perimeter people more than their inside people. Their inside people are strong and athletic and good, but their perimeter people, not only in height but in girth, they’re big.”
Those perimeter players include the 6-5, 215-pound Brogdon, the 6-6, 228-pound Anderson and 6-5, 207-pound Marial Shayok. MSU’s starters include the 6-0, 170-pound Trice and 5-10, 170-pound Tum Tum Nairn.
Brogdon, who scored 17 points against Michigan State last season, hasn’t forgotten the sting of that defeat.
“Everybody was upset, really upset about the loss, but we knew we had come a long way,” Brogdon said Saturday. “We knew we had been very successful, and we knew we could possibly play Michigan State again and make it to this point again in the tournament. Now that we’re here, we’re looking forward to the challenge.”
Virginia leads the nation in scoring defense (51.2 ppg). The Spartans average 71.8 points.
“They want to get up and down,” Brogdon said. “They play a pack defense, but they’ll pressure the ball and they’ll get you to turn it over. The key against them, I think, is not turning the ball over and getting back in transition when they try to get up the court.”
Another key for UVa will be limiting MSU’s offensive rebounds.
“Our 4s and 5s have to be right in this game, because it’s such a physical rebounding game,” Bennett said.
One of those post players, of course, is the 6-8 Gill, who leads the Cavaliers in rebounding (6.5) and is third in scoring (11.6). Against Belmont, Gill was 4 for 6 from the floor and 8 for 11 from the line and finished with 16 points.
“He’s a beast,” Anderson said. “He’s relentless. We all respect him, and we all know that’s what he’s going to bring every night.”
In last year’s NCAA tournament, Gill scored 17 points against Coastal Carolina in the second round and 13 against Memphis in the third. Against Michigan State, however, he limped off the court with a sprained ankle early in the second half. Gill had his ankle retaped and re-entered the game, but he was ineffective and finished with only three points.
“I think that game last year was big for our program, just to continue to make us hungry and want more for this program and want more for each individual player,” Gill said Saturday. “But I think personally I really wanted to help my team out there and I wasn’t able to perform the way that I wanted to, and I think that that really in a way made me a lot more hungry and want to get better, just to know that I could have helped my team and I didn’t really do what I needed to do because of injury.”
Gill and his teammates have an opportunity to write a different ending against Michigan State on Sunday. To do so, though, they know their Pack-Line defense must return to form. In the ACC tournament semifinals, North Carolina shot 54.8 percent from the floor in a 71-67 win over UVa. Belmont shot 47.4 percent Friday.
“We just have to be more alert and communicate better,” Atkins said.
If Izzo draws comfort from UVa’s recent defensive lapses, he didn’t let on Saturday.
“I know this: There aren’t many coaches around the country that wake up feeling good about going against Virginia’s defense,” Izzo said. “I think it’s more than just reputation. I think it’s been proven over time.”
WAITING HIS TURN: Darius Thompson, a 6-5 guard, is sitting out this season after transferring to UVa from Tennessee last year. Under NCAA transfer rules, Thompson is not allowed to travel with the Cavaliers to away games, but his father picked him up in Charlottesville and drove him to Charlotte, where he joined his teammates this weekend.
He sat behind the UVa bench Friday at Time Warner Cable Arena.
“It was really tough, just watching all the games at home,” Thompson said. “I want to be there to support my team. But getting down here and watching the tournament, this is a different feel.
“Last year I’m playing in it, and now I’m in the first row in the stands, watching. But it’s a great experience, and this will just get me more prepared for next year.”
Thompson started 10 games in 2013-14 for a Tennessee team that routed UVa during the regular season and in March advanced to the Sweet Sixteen.
“This whole time I’ve been here, I’ve been thinking, `Man, this time went by so fast. It feels like just the other day I was in the NCAA tournament playing,’ ” Thompson said Saturday. “There’s a whole bunch of memories coming back from being here.”
Thompson said he’s improved significantly since enrolling at UVa last June.
“Working with Coach Bennett and the coaching staff, they’ve helped me a lot,” Thompson said. “I feel I’m a lot better shooter and have a lot more confidence shooting. My game has really picked up since I’ve gotten here.”