Let’s start with this: If Michigan State is going to get past Virginia on Sunday and into the Sweet 16, it will have to play its best basketball of the season. So basically, the way it played against Wisconsin in Chicago, plus 5 more minutes. That’s asking a lot.
And then there’s this: If MSU does get past the Cavaliers – arguably the best defensive team in the country, with one of its underrated stars in Malcolm Brogdon, in a building packed with UVA fans – you can put the Final Four on the table for the Spartans. There’s no one else in the East, and I’m including Villanova, that will pose the challenge Tony Bennett’s team will pose Sunday.
So I guess I’m telling you there’s a chance. But that it’s a slim one. And I think it’s also worth mentioning that this team has already done its program proud this season.
The Spartans are mind-numbingly mistake-riddled with big leads in the last few minutes of games, but they’re in the round of 32 after flirting with not being in the field. And Denzel Valentine’s 6-for-6 showing at the line in the final 27 seconds Friday was awfully clutch.
It’s not just that he was at the foul line in an NCAA tournament game with the entire building swept up on the possibility of one of those classic NCAA finishes. It’s that he and his team have had so many troubles at that stripe all season – and he was just five days removed from the late turnover against Wisconsin. He buried that with six swishes, using what he called “laser focus.”
“Very important,” Izzo said of the free throws. “I told Denzel, ‘You’re getting the ball and you’re shooting them.’ I told him in the huddle because as you know we’ve had a couple of times where that hasn’t happened. I said, ‘So we’re winning or losing with you, that’s the way it’s gonna be. No debate, no decisions.’ And for once, I made the right decision. But give him credit, he knocked them down. And on a day where we didn’t shoot great from the line but we made some at the clutch time.”
On top of that, MSU was very, very good for about 30 minutes Friday, enough to build a pair of 13-point leads on a solid basketball team. Without some head-scratching fouls and resulting lineup wackiness, the ending may not have been interesting at all. The Spartans continue to show they’re better, tougher … and still need to be smarter.
If that doesn’t happen Sunday, forget about any upset chances. No matter how eager the Spartans are to pull it off.
“We know their basic set, which is circles,” MSU’s Matt Costello said of the Cavaliers. “We know how to guard it — it’s gonna be a lot of work. I’m glad we’re playing them the second game and not the first game. Because I remember last year, as soon as we were done with it, we were just drained for the UConn game. That is a tough team. They were top-5 all year, so it’s gonna be a tough game.”
No doubt about that. A very difficult assignment, indeed, but imagine the Spartans playing the Cavaliers on a road-ish/neutral-ish site a month ago. Would you give them any chance at all?