- The Washington Times - Monday, March 24, 2014

It is not lost on the Virginia Cavaliers that they are not the favorites in their own region of this year’s NCAA Tournament.

A No. 1 seed and ACC champions for the first time since 1976, an appearance in the Sweet 16 was expected. Virginia pulled away from pesky Coastal Carolina in its first game in Raleigh on Friday and thrashed No. 8 seed Memphis on Sunday, building a lead of 26 points in the second half.

But all along Michigan State, a perennial power, a team that likes to play the same game as Virginia, is looming in a Sweet 16 matchup at Madison Square Garden in New York on Friday night.

The Cavaliers couldn’t worry much about the Spartans while they were taking care of their own business in Raleigh. But now, just two wins from the program’s first Final 4 since 1984, Virginia can’t think about anything else. It is a No. 1 seed without a star player, an unexpected conference champion. Even President Obama picked Michigan State to win the national title in his bracket.

“We enjoy being the underdogs. It’s what we’ve been all year,” senior forward Akil Mitchell said. “It’s what we’ve been, most of us, all of our careers. So it’ll be second nature to us.”

But it’s disingenuous to call any top seed in an NCAA tournament game an underdog – even if the Cavaliers can plausibly make that claim against a program that’s been to six Final Fours under coach Tom Izzo and won a national title in 2000.

Virginia was ranked by both the Associated Press and the USA Today Coaches’ poll, but at 24th and 25th respectively. In-state rival Virginia Commonwealth was 10 spots higher. The ACC writers picked the Cavaliers fourth preseason, which isn’t disrespectful. But it’s also fair to say few observers saw them as a 30-win team. Since a 9-4 start and a 35-point blowout loss to Tennessee on Dec. 30, they are 21-2. It’s been a remarkable run of success. But can it continue as the competition level increases deeper into the tournament.

“I feel good about it, I think my teammates feel good about it,” redshirt sophomore Malcolm Brogdon said. “We’re going to play them like anybody else. They’re a very talented team, one of the best teams in the country. But everybody has an opinion and if they have Michigan State picked then we’re going to use that as motivation.”

Virginia will see a team that is finally at full strength. The Spartans are 28-8, an impressive record in its own right. But given the rash of injuries that crippled Michigan State well into the season, it’s downright scary. At points throughout the year, the Spartans were missing five of their eight best players. But with their full lineup back together, they won the Big 10 tournament after tying for second during the regular season.

“It’s a great test,” said sophomore forward Justin Anderson, who noted that his high school coach at Montrose Christian, Stu Vetter, had his team use secondary break principles taken from Izzo. “I have nothing but respect for Michigan State. We want to make sure that we take it as a challenge and go in there and try to impose our will on defense once again and hopefully we come out with a victory.”

Senior point guard Keith Appling, who averages 4.6 assists per game, leads the Spartans. Sophomore guard Garry Harris (16.9 points per game) and senior forward Adreian Payne (16.6) are the leading scorers. But like Virginia, the Spartans don’t rely on one player to get the bulk of their points.

According to the web site kenpom.com, Michigan State had the nation’s 11th-most efficient offense entering the tournament and were 40th defensively, a notch below Izzo’s exacting standards. The Cavaliers, meanwhile, ranked 22nd offensively, but third defensively. It’s hard to look at this game as anything but even.

“A lot of history behind them,” Virginia freshman point guard London Perrantes said. “It’s a dream come true to go out on the floor at Madison Square Garden against Michigan State. It’s going to be huge. We haven’t watched too much of the film yet, but we’re all excited. We’ll be ready.”

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