The last time the Virginia Cavaliers were in the Sweet 16 they were a No. 4 seed toppling No. 1 seed Kansas all the way back in 1995.
Now Virginia and head coach Tony Bennett are the top seed hoping to sidestep tournament juggernaut No. 4 Michigan State in Friday night’s East Region semi-final at Madison Square Garden.
The Cavaliers’ success is largely attributed to the Atlantic Coast Conference’s best defense allowing 55.5 points per game and opponent’s 38.6 percent shooting from the floor. That defensive prowess has Virginia deeper in the tournament than it’s been since that Elite Eight run 19 years ago.
But they’ll face a Spartans squad with arguably the best NCAA tournament coach in Tom Izzo and a healthy roster. All but two Spartans missed some games this year, including star sophomore guard and leading scorer Gary Harris, forward Adreian Payne, and senior guard Keith Appling.
While the injuries were minor and the trio has played well in the tournament thus far, Michigan State did have to battle through a midseason slump. Before their current five-game winning streak gave them the Big Ten tournament title and a 12 th Sweet 16 appearance in 17 years, the Spartans had lost seven of 12 games in the middle of their conference schedule.
On the flip side, Virginia was very consistent all season, and has gone 18-1 in its last 19 games and also rides a five-game win streak.
Some of the key matchups to look forward to are the Cavaliers one-two backcourt duo of Malcolm Brogdon and Joe Harris against the Spartans Harris and Appling, who could wreak havoc making plays at 4.6 assists per game.
Bennett will also rely on senior forward Akil Mitchell and sophomore forward Anthony Gill to contain Payne and junior swingman Branden Dawson. A hulking senior, Payne netted 41 points and eight rebounds in Michigan State’s opening round blowout win over Delaware, and Dawson punished Harvard with 26 points and nine boards in the third round.
The Cavaliers could also throw forward/center Mike Tobey at Michigan State’s frontline. At 6-foot-11 Tobey is the biggest player on Virginia’s roster, and totaled 11 points, six rebounds and two blocks against Memphis in the third round.
The winner moves on to face either No. 3 Iowa State or No. 7 Connecticut on Sunday for a shot at the Final Four.
Time: 9:57 p.m. EST
TV Channel: TBS
Online Stream Info: A live online stream is available at NCAA March Madness Live here.
Prediction: Michigan State over Virginia 79-70