If you're looking for a Cinderella story in this game you came to the wrong place. Virginia won the ACC regular season and tournament titles en route to a No. 1 seed in the East bracket. Tom Izzo and his Spartans -- picked by millions around the country to win the NCAA Tournament, including our Commander-in-Chief -- find themselves back in the Sweet 16 for the seventh time in the last eight seasons.
This is what March is all about. Cinderella's are cute for a while. Everyone enjoys having them hang around to shock the world for a few rounds, but like that annoying kid brother who wants to stick around and play with the big boys for a just a little too long, they inevitably end up getting hurt. There is no kid brother in this match up. This is a game between two powerhouse basketball teams and it's going to be one fierce, bloody battle.
No. 1 Virginia Cavaliers (30-6, 16-2)
This Virginia team does not like to lose. They have suffered defeat only twice since the start of 2014. They cruised to NCAA tournament wins over Coastal Carolina by 11 and Memphis by 18. Prior to that the Cavs took down Jabari Parker and Duke in the ACC Tournament title game by nine. Despite their No. 1 seed and a penchant for winning, most view the Cavaliers as underdogs against the Spartans. Virginia is in full Rodney Dangerfield "no respect" mode right now.
The Cavaliers bread and butter is their suffocating defense. They rank fifth in adjusted defensive rating according to Ken Pomeroy's system. If Virginia has time to get set in their half-court defense -- which they almost always do, in accordance with their low attack rate on the offensive glass -- opposing teams have an exceedingly difficult time getting any sort of easy look at the rim.
Opponents average under 61 possessions a game against the Cavs -- third best in the nation -- in part because of how long it takes to find a decent scoring opportunity. It routinely takes 30 seconds or more for the opposition to launch a shot versus Virginia.
The Cavs limit fast breaks as much as possible, making sure their defense gets back in place to prevent such opportunities as opposed to attacking the offensive glass in search of second-chance points. Factor into this that the Cavs allow a ridiculously stingy 0.91 points per possession and you can see just how difficult points are to come by for the opposition.
Virginia strives to eliminate second-chance opportunities, in effect making most opposing teams offensive possessions a one-and-done type of deal. The Cavs gobble up rebounds on the defensive end. Virginia snags 74 percent of all available defensive rebounds, making sure that most opponent possessions end with one -- usually bad -- shot. With opposing offenses shooting a woeful 38 percent against this intimidating defense, they need all the second-chance opportunities they can get. Virginia is one of the best in the nation at stopping just that.
Since the Cavs are so committed inside, surely three-point looks must open up, right? Not exactly. Opponents shoot only 32.2 percent from behind the arc against the Cavs. Their defensive philosophy centers around harassing the primary ball handler while limiting perimeter ball movement. There is a greater chance at getting a decent look from outside than inside, but the Cavs will live with that. Shots 23 feet away from the hoop are far more difficult than shots three feet away. Teams are going to knock down a few every now and then, but unless an opposing shooter morphs into Steph Curry points are still going to be hard to come by from deep.
While the Cavs are one of the stoutest defensive squads in the nation, their offense is middling at best. They average 66.4 points per game on only 60.8 possessions. Some of that has to do with their defense forcing the opposition to use up most of the clock looking for a good shot, but most of it has to do with the Cavs more deliberate style of play.
The offense is led by senior sharpshooter Joe Harris (11.8 ppg), who hit 70 three point field goals this season on 40.5 percent shooting, and Malcolm Brogdon, who averages 12.6 points per game on a less than stellar 41.8 percent shooting. Freshman London Perrantes has the ability to stroke it from deep, however he has not had as many opportunities as Harris and Brogdan this season.
The Cavs, like another B1G team Michigan State is quite familiar with, place an emphasis on not turning the ball over. They average only 10.1 turnover per game, a top-20 mark in the nation. Coach Tony Bennet rarely puts his players in a position to make big mistakes. They will not push on the fast break unless there is a clear advantage nor will they force the ball into tight corridors. A poor offensive output will likely come from poor shooting, not poor decision-making.
The Cavs major offensive weakness, aside from an elite scoring threat, is their brutal free throw shooting. If this game turns into a free throw shooting contest the Cavs are at a major disadvantage. The Cavs shoot a paltry 67 percent from the line. They are supposed to be FREE points! Only two players on the team with 30 or more attempts are shooting over 71 percent from the line (Brogdon and Perrantes). Akil Mitchell might as well be shooting with a blindfold on. Mitchell has hit only 41 of his 96 free throws this year. His shooting percentage from the free throw line is actually lower than several Michigan State players three-point shooting percentage. Ouch.
Michigan State (28-8, 12-6)
Adreian Payne destroys Delaware by himself in round one; Branden Dawson and Gary Harris put on a show against a fiesty Harvard team in round two; just like clockwork look who's back in the Sweet 16. Izzo and the Spartans really should just get an automatic bye into this round every year. This team is finally healthy after a tumultuous season filled with injury and no one is looking forward to playing them. They are on a five game winning streak, including a Big Ten Tournament championship win, and look like the team everyone projected to be the best in the nation at the beginning of the year. To be honest, anything less than a trip to the title game will be viewed as a failure by most.
The Spartans defense isn't on par with what the Cavs bring the to table, but they are no slouches on that end. Michigan State is No. 40 in terms of adjusted defense according to Ken Pomeroy's data. They allow less than one point per possession -- a benchmark number for any solid defense -- and hold opponents to 40 percent shooting, good for 25th in the nation. The Cavs do not have a main offensive threat, so the Spartans defense should be more than up to the task of containing their shooters.
The Spartans do not give up many second-chance opportunities and the Cavs are not all that interested in fighting on the offensive boards anyway. This could be a vulnerable spot against certain teams, but Virginia is not one of them.
Virginia has a lot of size, which might be an issue whenever Payne is off the court. He needs to stay out of foul trouble to maintain the Spartans low post presence.
Spartans offense versus Cavaliers defense. This is going to be fun. According to Ken Pomeroy we are looking at a battle between the eighth best offense and the fifth best defense in the nation.
The Spartans have a collection of talent capable of going off every game. Payne showed everyone in round one what he can do by dropping 41 points. When he had a tough outing against Tommy Amaker's Harvard Crimson in the second round Dawsen and Harris where there to pick up the slack, pouring in 44 combined points.
As I brought up before, Virginia is somewhat vulnerable on defense from behind the arc. This works out in the Spartans favor. Michigan State shoots a collective 39.3 percent from three-point range, with three rotation players -- Payne, Trice and Kaminski -- all shooting over 43 percent. Gary Harris shot 35 percent on the year but is capable of lighting it up from deep at any point.
Izzo and the Spartans have bought into the notion that sharing is caring. Michigan State averages 17 assists per game, sixth best in the nation. They have a team of willing passers led by Keith Appling and his 4.6 dimes per game. Virginia likes to limit ball movement, especially along the perimeter, so the Spartans are going to have to be extra careful with how they share the rock.
This is going to be an excellent matchup to watch for hoop heads. A battle between an offensive juggernaut and defensive stalwart always makes for great basketball. I can't see Virginia having enough offense to compete with Michigan State. If Michigan State remains cold from outside they are going to have some serious problems stretching the Virginia defense. This will be a lower scoring game than the Spartans are accustomed too, but they have too many weapons firing on all cylinders right now to be slowed down for long. The Spartans will not get the amount of possessions they are used too and will most likely hit an offensive lull from time to time, but the senior leadership of Appling and Payne will be enough to overcome the defensive blitz Virginia throws at them.
Final Score: Michigan State 68, Virginia 60