Virginia basketball enters Sweet 16 vs. Michigan State as the rare top-seeded underdog

On Sunday, after his team had advanced to the NCAA tournament Sweet 16 with a win over Memphis, Virginia sophomore Justin Anderson was asked about his initial impression of Michigan State, the Cavaliers’ region semifinal opponent.

“Didn’t Barack pick them?” he said with a wry smile.

President Obama — and nearly everyone else who filled out a tournament bracket this season — had indeed picked the Spartans to beat the Cavaliers. It both irked and motivated a team that has been silencing the critics all season, first by winning its first ACC regular season title since 1981, then by taking home the ACC tournament title for the first time since 1976 and finally by advancing past the NCAA tournament’s first weekend for the first time since 1995.

But by Thursday, one day before the matchup, Anderson had begun to understand why so few outside Charlottesville have faith his team can win.

“If I were to look on paper . . . I could understand, ‘Okay, I’m gonna pick Michigan State,’ because of Coach [Tom] Izzo over a team like Virginia, who people might say, ‘Oh, they’re happening to have a great year,’ ” Anderson said.

“It’s our style of play. It’s not one where you’re gonna sit down and watch the whole game.”

Virginia (30-6) will continue its NCAA tournament run Friday night in the East Region against No. 4 seed Michigan State (28-8), a game in which the Cavaliers will be the rare No. 1 seed that enters as an underdog. The Spartans are as healthy as they were when they started 18-1 and rose to No. 1 in the national rankings.

That so many have cast doubt on whether the Cavaliers are up to this challenge doesn’t seem to bother them as much as it did a week ago. If anything, guard Malcolm Brogdon said, “it’s added fuel to our fire.”

Forward Evan Nolte sided with Anderson, that Virginia’s defense-first style and the lack of “a bunch of alley-oops and dunks” are why so many aren’t sure what to make of the Cavaliers.

“It’s kind of funny just to see all the stuff we’ve done and nobody giving us credit,” forward Anthony Gill said.

This, though, is a position Virginia often has found itself in while racking up wins in 18 of its past 19 games. After all, everyone in the Cavaliers’ locker room agrees preseason expectations — and the selfishness that arose from them — led to a slow start in nonconference play.

“We’re not used to being the team that everyone expects to win,” forward Akil Mitchell said. “Not saying we don’t enjoy the pressure of the moment, but it definitely helps kind of relax some tensions a little bit when people don’t expect you to win.”

Though his current team has not been to this stage in a while, Coach Tony Bennett reached the Sweet 16 during his days at Wisconsin and Washington State.

Bennett, who makes a yearly salary of $1.7 million, has already earned an extra $400,000 in bonuses for winning ACC coach of the year, the ACC tournament championship and finishing No. 3 in the national polls. He is due an additional $250,000 if the Cavaliers move on to the region final Sunday and another $250,000 if they qualify for the Final Four. According to USA Today, it’s more money than any other coach left in the field can earn this weekend.

For Izzo, advancing this far is nothing new. Michigan State has made the Sweet 16 in 12 of his 17 years as coach.

Nonetheless, Michigan State guard Keith Appling called his team’s status as a favorite “weird” on Thursday, and fellow guard Denzel Valentine said Izzo is “always on us, and now he’s on us a little more because everyone is picking us to be number one.”

“I don’t mind letting down alums, but man, the president, I don’t want to let him down,” Izzo joked this week.

Virginia’s awe factor was noticeable Thursday as Mitchell raced into the New York Knicks’ locker room — one of the perks of being the No. 1 seed — and tried to take the same locker used by NBA star Carmelo Anthony. He had been told it was three stalls from the end, except he chose the wrong side of the room.

So it was Nolte who held court where Anthony usually sits, although he was quick to point out he didn’t expect the new digs would make him play like Anthony. Instead, with another chance to prove itself on a national stage, Virginia will go with its same team-first style.

“I’ll tell you,” Nolte said of any comparisons to Anthony, “the ball will be moving around a little bit more.”

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