Michigan State arrives in the Sweet 16 on a five-game winning streak, with fans and analysts around the country espousing the Spartans as one of the main contenders for the national title. First things first – to reach the Elite Eight, Michigan State must defeat Virginia tonight at Madison Square Garden.
Given the background of Cavaliers head coach Tony Bennett – the only coaches he’s ever served as an assistant are his father Dick Bennett and Bo Ryan - it can feel natural to compare Virginia to Wisconsin, and the two squads are indeed similar.
In some ways, Virginia is Wisconsin-ing harder than Wisconsin this season, as the Cavaliers play at one of the nation’s slowest tempos and have a stout defense that is fueled by superb defensive rebounding. It figures to be one-and-done for the Michigan State offense tonight, which might not be much of a problem if the Spartans are shooting their typical percentage from three.
Virginia employs a pack-line defense, which is a man-to-man focused on being in help position rather than playing the passing lanes. The benefits of this approach are many: opponents rarely get uncontested looks at the rim, the Cavaliers are almost always in good rebounding position, and Virginia is able to avoid sending opponents to the foul line. These are all valuable defensive commodities.
The biggest potential drawback of a pack-line defense, if not played extremely well, is a tendency to give up a lot of three-point attempts. Proponents of the pack-line will argue that defenders are taught to close out hard on three-point shooters, driving down opponents’ three-point accuracy, but there’s some debate as to whether the numbers support that theory.
Regardless, Michigan State figures to get some looks from the perimeter tonight, and much of the outcome will hinge upon the Spartans’ ability to knock those shots down. With the plethora of shooters at Tom Izzo’s disposal, that fact bodes well for Michigan State’s chances.
On the other end, Virginia is a good but not great offensive team. The Cavaliers are highly accurate on threes, but they prefer not to shoot many of them. The best quality of this offense might be its careful avoidance of turnovers, which serves two purposes. The most obvious is that it gets Virginia ample opportunities to score, but the svelte turnover rate also forces opposing offenses to beat the Cavaliers in the half court. Opponents have posted a lowly 43 percent effective field goal percentage against Virginia’s half court defense, compared to 47 percent in transition.
If the Spartans can manage to get out and run, the transition game could be a huge factor in this contest. Michigan State ranks 13th nationally in percentage of initial shot attempts coming in transition, and the Spartans are also particularly good at converting those opportunities (MSU’s effective field goal percentage in transition is 61 percent). If any team can run successfully on Virginia, Michigan State might be that team.
KenPom projects a 64-62 Virginia win, but I like the Spartans’ ability to hit threes and possibly get out in transition, even against this tough Virginia defense.
I’ll take Michigan State by four.