Tony Bennett and top seed Virginia take dream season to Madison Square Garden, where Cavaliers continue their run Friday night against Michigan State in East regional semifinals. (Photo courtesy of USA Today)
This site reaches its biggest milestone this weekend, as we will be privileged to bring you NCAA Tournament coverage from Madison Square Garden, home of the semifinals and final in the East regional. To celebrate the occasion, we'll get you caught up on the four teams fighting for a trip to the Final Four, starting first with the unlikely No. 1 seed who now carries the banner as the last man standing from the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Virginia Cavaliers (30-6, No. 1 seed)
Last Sweet 16 Appearance: 1995
How They Got Here: Defeated No. 16 seed Coastal Carolina 70-59 on March 21, defeated No. 8 seed Memphis 78-60 on March 23 (both games in Raleigh, NC)
What They Bring To The Table: Arguably the stingiest and most underrated defense in the nation. Tony Bennett's Cavaliers yield just 56 points per game to their opponents, and during Virginia's 13-game win streak late in the regular season, opposing teams were held under that average eight times, five of which resulted in allowing less than 50 points. The Cavaliers also control the backboards to the tune of surrendering a mere 29 rebounds per game, with less than nine boards coming on the offensive glass on average. Virginia's length is hard to match up with Malcolm Brogdon and Joe Harris on the wings, and the combination of Akil Mitchell and 6-11 sophomore center Mike Tobey provides an instant size advantage.
Ball control is also at a premium for Virginia, who may very well be one of the most fundamentally sound teams in Division I, averaging just ten turnovers per game, which equates to a 17 percent turnover rate, and freshman point guard London Perrantes is a big reason why. The Los Angeles product may not score much, (only 5.4 points per game) but what he lacks in offensive firepower, he makes up for in precision and discipline, averaging nearly four assists per game to supplement an assist to turnover ratio of over 3.5:1. The aforementioned Brogdon and Harris, both of whom are the only double-figure scorers on Bennett's roster, also have positive ball handling ratios, and place a great importance on keeping defenders in front of them while also squeezing the juice out of their opponents. In addition, sophomores Justin Anderson and Anthony Gill, the latter a South Carolina transfer, lead the charge off the bench with a combined 17 points and seven rebounds per contest.
Where They Have An Advantage: By being a deliberate, methodical attack; almost like a basketball vampire of sorts, gradually sucking the life out of a defense while controlling the ball before keeping rebounds essentially out of play. Michigan State, the Cavaliers' first opponent in New York, split their two meetings with Wisconsin, but both games were all-out wars that were decided by a grand total of just ten points, and Virginia may be the closest remaining squad to Bo Ryan's Badgers remaining on the dance floor.
Where They May Struggle: By being the most defensive-minded of the four teams taking the court this weekend. Not to say that Virginia's style cripples them, (it certainly does not) but against a physical team in Michigan State, an Iowa State team that is arguably the most complete team remaining in the regional, and a UConn offense that has averaged 83 points per game in their victories against Saint Joseph's and Villanova this past weekend, things could go downhill fast for the Wahoos if they are unable to make shots for an extended period of time.
Keys to Victory Against Michigan State: First and foremost, establishing an interior presence to take Adreian Payne out of the game. If Virginia can maximize Tobey and Mitchell in the opening minutes, the Spartans' aggressive rebounding will be neutralized, forcing Izzo to rely on Keith Appling and Gary Harris to engage Brogdon and Harris. Pay careful attention to the matchup between Appling and Perrantes, as the man who is the most efficient will likely emerge victorious.