Even today, 14 years later, Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo calls it a “fist fight.”
At halftime, the score was straight out of a football game, not the Final Four — 19-17 Spartans. It’s his fondest memory of Dick Bennett’s Wisconsin teams, if only because Michigan State beat the Badgers and then two nights later captured the 2000 national championship.
Chances are, though, when the fourth-seeded Spartans face top-seeded Virginia in an East region Sweet 16 matchup Friday night in New York, the scoreboard will get more use. The Cavaliers, Izzo noted, are not Coach Tony Bennett’s father’s Wisconsin teams.
“I wanted to say in Virginia, this team plays like the Wisconsin teams … They’re not,” he said this week. “They’re a Wisconsin defense of the past, but I think Tony has put his own mark on them offensively, and I think they do a lot more offensively than some of those teams did.”
A “slugfest” — Izzo’s word — could very well break out at Madison Square Garden, but it would not necessarily reflect the two teams on the floor. As has been well documented, Virginia’s pack-line defense has been stifling this year, and Michigan State has long been a program built on blue-collar traits like toughness and rebounding.
But make no mistake, these two teams can score, and perhaps the biggest battle Friday night will revolve around pace. As Michigan State senior Keith Appling put it: “We’re a much better team when we get out in transition. So we can’t let them hold us in the half-court and bottle us up.”
The Spartans are averaging 76.5 points per game, the third-highest figure amongst teams still remaining in the NCAA tournament. They’ve only lost one game this year when they score more than 70 points.
“I think they’re actually better in their offensive transition than Memphis was because their guards can shoot at such a high level,” Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon said.
Added Bennett: “This is one of the best teams in transition that I’ve seen. And we’re not going to change who we are. We’re just going to have to probably do it a little better to try to stop that.”
Point guard London Perrantes noted earlier this week that Bennett actually prefers to face a like-minded team because it is the ultimate test for his defense-first philosophy. But unlike previous seasons, the Cavaliers can also respond with an offense that Izzo called “under-respected” Thursday, despite the perception Virginia has won 18 of its past 19 games simply by being a defensive juggernaut.
In fact, over the past 10 games Virginia is shooting 49.1 percent from the field. If done over the course of the entire season, the Cavaliers would rank No. 9 in the country in field goal percentage.
“They’re more athletic than people give them credit for. This isn’t Wisconsin. This isn’t Washington State,” former Virginia Tech Coach Seth Greenberg said. “They’ve got more ways to put pressure on you. They’ve got more weapons. They’ve got more versatility than I can remember.”
So forgive Izzo if he isn’t sure what style of play will break out Friday night. Just don’t expect the halftime score to be 19-17 this time around.
“One of the successes we have had as a program is we could play racehorse or smash mouth,” Izzo said. “It’s hard to impose your will on somebody when it’s also their strength. We run, but we can run in half court. They send a lot of guys back. It’s been the culture that he’s developed there, no giving up easy shots. We’re going to try to run, but that’s not going to be the end all, be all if they take that away . . . You give up something to get something.”
There are any number of individual battles that could determine Friday’s outcome, from point guard (Perrantes and Appling) to each team’s leading scorers (Brogdon and Michigan State’s Gary Harris, Jr.). But how Mitchell handles the inside-outside threat of Payne will be the most interesting head-to-head matchup on the floor.
He’s done it before, most notably when Mitchell made life miserable for Duke’s Jabari Parker in the ACC tournament final, but Payne will have a noticeable size advantage down low and has the ability to knock down outside jumpers. In Virginia’s most recent loss – against Maryland to close the regular season – the three-point threat of Terrapins forward Evan Smotrycz pulled Mitchell to the perimeter and weakened the Cavaliers’ pack-line defense.
X Factor: Michigan State’s four-guard lineup
As the Spartans hit their stride in the Big Ten tournament, Izzo increasingly turned to a four-guard lineup featuring Appling, Harris, sophomore Denzel Valentine and junior Branden Dawson, both to start games and in crunch time. Bennett can do the same by adding sophomore Justin Anderson to the mix, but that would likely leave forward Anthony Gill on the bench. He’s been Virginia’s best offensive player in the post in recent weeks. Not to mention, if Mitchell takes on Payne, center Mike Tobey will essentially have nobody to guard. How Bennett and Izzo manage this chess match will be a fun subplot to keep an eye on.
Key stat: When Michigan State hit eight or more three-pointers in Big Ten play, it had an 8-1 record. Since its Dec. 30 loss at Tennessee, Virginia has allowed more than 10 three pointers just once – in a 69-65 loss at Duke on Jan. 13.