The Sweet 16 matchups are set, and one of the favorites appears to have an even stronger chance of winning the national championship, with several notable teams eliminated.
Duke, Wichita State, Creighton, Kansas, Villanova, and Syracuse, have all been sent home early, making the road to a title a bit easier for No. 4 seed Michigan State (28-8). The Spartans are the only lower-seeded team to open as a favorite against a higher-seeded opponent in this week’s Sweet 16.
After opening-round wins over Delaware and Harvard, Tom Izzo’s squad still has a tough challenge awaiting them in the East Region. They’ll take on No. 1-seed Virginia (30-6) on Friday night at Madison Square Garden.
The Spartans opened as 2.5-point favorites over the Cavaliers, who are coming off wins over Coastal Carolina and Memphis, but that line has since dropped to one point. This is the first Sweet 16 appearance for Virginia since 1995.
The Florida Gators are the only team with a better chance of winning the national championship than the Spartans, according to Las Vegas sportsbooks. Michigan State currently has 5/1 odds of winning the title, which are the same odds as Louisville. Virginia comes in at 9/1.
After a blowout win over Delaware in which senior center Adreian Payne scored a tournament-high 41 points, Michigan State struggled Saturday against Harvard. The Spartans blew a 12-point halftime lead against the Crimson to fall behind by two points, but eventually found a way to win, 80-73. The less than impressive showing might serve as a positive, as they look to rebound against a more prominent opponent.
“The greatest thing that happened for me is we did enough bad things … but we found a way to bounce back and win,” Izzo told reporters after the Harvard game. “It’s always a better learning experience when you win and do some things that will maybe get their attention now in the film session tomorrow night.
“When you can learn and win, that’s a hell of a day. That’s a hell of a day.”
The Spartans will have to overcome Virginia’s stingy defense, in which the Cavaliers protect the paint and force opponents into three-point shots. It’s led to Virginia having one of the best defenses in the country. The Cavaliers have held their last 23 opponents to less than 50 percent shooting from the field, and they ead the country with the highest defensive scoring average at 55.4 points per game.
“They play suffocating defense,” TNT analyst Charles Barkley said on Sunday night. “I think they've been underrated all year. I think if you get to 75 points, you can beat them.”
Only three teams - Green Bay, Tennessee and Maryland - have scored more than 75 points against the Cavaliers this year, and all were victorious.
Virginia has 18 wins in 19 games, but looked sluggish in its NCAA Tournament opener against No. 16 Coastal Carolina. They were still able to overcome a 10-point deficit, and coasted in the final minutes. In its second game against Memphis on Sunday night, Virginia pulled away for a 15-point halftime lead, after the Tigers started the game shooting 8-for-30 offensively, in an eventual 78-60 Cavalier win.
In two games, sophomore Anthony Gill has starred for Virginia, averaging 15 points per game, behind an excellent 70.6 percent shooting percentage. Malcolm Brogdon is also expected to receive considerable attention from the Spartans’ defense. The 6’5 sophomore guard leads the Cavaliers this season with 12.6 points per game.
The Spartans are led by Payne, averaging 26.5 points per game, and Branden Dawson, averaging 18 points per game, in the tournament. Four players on Michigan State averaged 11 points or more during the season.
The winner will face tough competition in the Elite Eight. No. 3-seed Iowa State takes on No. 7-seed UConn in a game matching two high-powered offenses. The Cyclones, which defeated North Carolina Central and North Carolina in the opening weekend, are led by DeAndre Kane, who scored 24 points and had 10 rebounds against North Carolina. Meanwhile, UConn is coming off an overtime victory over Atlantic 10 Champion Saint Joseph’s, and an upset over Villanova, a No. 2 seed.
Iowa State has 20/1 odds of winning the national championship, while UConn comes in at 28/1.
The winner of the two East Region matchups will meet on Sunday, with a trip to the Final Four in Arlington, Texas, on the line.
Time: 9:57 p.m. ET
TV Channel: TBS
Online Stream Info: March Madness Live
Prediction: Michigan State over Virginia, 71-70
An IB Times Staff Reporter contributed to this report.