March legend Tom Izzo returns to college basketball legend Madison Square Garden with trip to seventh Final Four squarely in sight. (Photo courtesy of the New York Post)
Two more team-by-team previews remain before Madison Square Garden welcomes the East regional semifinals and final this weekend, and after getting to know both Virginia and Iowa State a little better over the past two days, we shift focus to a team who is intimately acquainted with the terrain in March, one of the many household names still remaining in this year's Sweet 16.
Michigan State Spartans (28-8, No. 4 seed)
Last Sweet 16 appearance: 2013 (third straight Sweet 16 and sixth since 2008)
How They Got Here: Defeated No. 13 seed Delaware 93-78 on March 20, defeated No. 12 seed Harvard 80-73 on March 22 (both games in Spokane, Wash.)
What They Bring To The Table: Aside from UCLA and Kentucky, (and maybe Florida) the richest NCAA Tournament history of any other team still dancing. One simply cannot mention Tom Izzo without first recalling his March success, as he is the Reggie Jackson of sorts among college basketball coaches. Izzo, a college roommate of former NFL head coach Steve Mariucci, does not do it on his own, either, getting the most out of his roster year in and year out. What makes this group even more impressive is that the 2013-14 Spartans, despite being led by a pair of seniors in point guard Keith Appling and 6-10 center Adreian Payne, are essentially a young team after that, with a handful of sophomores and juniors playing beyond their age boundaries to form a vintage Izzo unit that crashes the boards on every possession to the tune of 37 rebounds per game.
Sparty is also playing for a chance to add to their history. Since Izzo replaced longtime coach Jud Heathcote in 1995, every single player that he has recruited and stayed all four years has played in a Final Four before he graduated. This year's senior class of Appling, Payne and walk-on Dan Chapman have yet to reach a national semifinal, having lost in the Round of 64 as freshmen before consecutive Sweet 16 losses to Louisville and Duke, respectively.
Michigan State is a traditional team in terms of the rotation Izzo employs, a throwback of sorts with mainly a six-man committee, not counting the combined 28 minutes per game from seventh and eighth men Matt Costello and Kenny Kaminski. Four of the Spartans' starters average 11 or more points per game, the only exception being Denzel Valentine, who makes up for his eight points per contest with six rebounds and nearly four assists per night. In addition, sixth man Travis Trice is a lethal weapon from beyond the arc, shooting a blistering 45 percent behind the line.
Where They Have An Advantage: In the efficiency department. Michigan State is disciplined enough to where they will never take anything less than a smart shot, as evidenced by their 48 percent clip from the field as a team. Breaking that down even further, half of the eight Spartans to see significant playing time shoot better than 50 percent from the floor, including an eye-popping 62 percent mark from junior swingman Branden Dawson, who has quietly overcome injuries to blossom into an underrated double-double threat who controls the game while everyone else forces the issue. Sparty is also adept at ball handling, with only Payne having a negative assist to turnover ratio, a statistic that will be vital to Michigan State's success Friday night against a Virginia team whose defense is among the best in the nation. Having also played at the Garden, which they did against Georgetown last month, albeit in a losing effort, can only help Izzo in game preparation.
Where They May Struggle: Potentially meeting their match on the glass. This should not be a problem Friday night considering Virginia only averages 29 rebounds per game, but should the Spartans advance into the Elite 8 for the first time since their 2010 Final Four run behind Kalin Lucas and Raymar Morgan, they will need to overcome the presence of either Melvin Ejim or Amida Brimah in the paint, while also dealing with the all-around ability of one of the best point guards in the nation, be it Shabazz Napier or DeAndre Kane. If Michigan State finds themselves unable to establish an interior presence to dictate the game from the inside out, the uncharacteristically long Final Four drought in East Lansing could extend to a fourth year.
Keys To Victory Against Virginia: In a nutshell, rebounding, ball control and scoring. Friday night's regional semifinal against Tony Bennett and the Cavaliers will be nothing short of a war, with the Spartans' combat mentality on the boards matching wits with a Virginia defense that squeezes the life out of its opponents with an Andre the Giant-esque bear hug pressure that is near impossible to escape when executed perfectly. Michigan State also needs to avoid turnovers while neutralizing freshman point guard London Perrantes, who will seek to involve Joe Harris and Malcolm Brogdon; as well as the Cavaliers' interior duo of Mike Tobey and Akil Mitchell, early and often to punch Sparty in the mouth as quickly as possible. If the Spartans can get their first few shots to fall to put themselves in position to equal their season average of 77 points per game, it should be more than enough to survive a Virginia team that allows only 56 points on average to their opponents.