WASHINGTON (CBSDC) – When No. 1 Virginia takes on No. 4 Michigan State – two teams which can run scoring clinics, or scrap down low in the double digits — for entrance into the Elite Eight, the game will ultimately be low-scoring, and won in the paint, says former Cavaliers coach Pete Gillen.
The matchup features teams which took two very different paths to the Sweet Sixteen.
Both tournament champions of their respective conferences, Virginia coasted through its ACC regular season schedule (16-2) and carried that momentum onto the ACC Tournament title.
Michigan State finished third (12-6) in the Big 10, then clawed through some of the best the conference had to offer on the way to the Big 10 Tournament championship.
In the NCAA Tournament, Virginia ran into an early stumbling block in No. 16 Coastal Carolina, before getting their legs under them and rallying to victory in the second half. They went on to throttle No. 8 Memphis in the Round of 32.
“A lot of times teams are hanging with them for maybe 30 minutes, and then Virginia pulls away again and scores 12 in a row,” Gillen, now an analyst for CBS Sports Network, said. “And they wear you down with their mental and physical style play.”
Michigan State beat a sound up-and-coming No. 13 Delaware team, soundly, and then scrapped with a feisty No. 12 Harvard team which had upset Cincinnati in its tournament opener.
Here they are, two battled-tested teams: one with a proven track record of dancing all the way to the Final Four – Michigan State has 6 Final Four appearances in 15 tournament appearances in as many years – and one, Virginia, not so much. The Cavaliers haven’t made it out of the second round since 1995.
So, in at least one respect, you could say the Cavs are actually the underdogs.
“I think the front court’s gonna be very important,” Gillen said. “If they can bang with Adreian Payne up front and [Branden] Dawson … if they can be physical with them, which I think they can, I think they’ve got a chance to upset them.”
Whoever emerges the victor could have, at least, with respect to seedings, a markedly easier matchup in the Elite Eight, setting the stage for a potential Final Four appearance.
No. 3 Iowa State tips off against No. 7 UConn two and a half hours earlier.
Virginia’s lack of tourney experience doesn’t translate to its head coach, Tony Bennett, however. At Washington State, he led the Cougars to consecutive tournament appearances, making it to the Round of 32 and the Sweet 16 in consecutive years.
Since arriving in Charlottesville in 2009, he’s been back twice. The first, in 2012, when his No. 10 Cavs got bounced out of the opening round by No. 7 Florida by 26 points. The second, present day, things are a little different.
“He’s built a program, not just a team,” Gillen said.
“They just kind of take their time and run their stuff, and run their break when they can, but if not, they’re willing to play the game in the 50s or the 40s,” he said. “And a lot of teams just get frustrated.”
Points will be hard to come by against the Spartans, Gillen says, adding, “I think the game’s going to be won in the paint.”
“Who’s going to control the inside part of the game? Who’s going to limit the other team to one shot?”
Ultimately, Gillen predicts a low-scoring game, “Maybe 58-54.”