Michigan State Basketball: Spartans' 5 Keys to Beating Virginia

Brad Almquist@bquist13Featured ColumnistMarch 26, 2014

Michigan State Basketball: Spartans' 5 Keys to Beating Virginia

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    Michigan State will square off against a stingy Virginia squad on March 28 in what could potentially be one of the tournament's most thrilling games. The Spartans will have to emphasize a few key areas against the Cavaliers in order to win.

    Virginia has lost only once through the last two months, and its recent demolishing of Memphis validated its No. 1 seeding.

    Meanwhile, Michigan State entered the tournament as a favorite to cut down the nets in Arlington. Through the first two contests, Sparty has played the way it was expected.

    At this point, neither team looks destined to exit the Big Dance. But something has to give.

    Here are Michigan State's five keys to conquering Virginia in the Sweet 16.

Control the Tempo

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    Whichever team controls the pace of the game will likely advance. These teams differ greatly in terms of its preferred tempo; Michigan State wants to push the ball in transition and Virginia tends to play more of a half-court game.

    First, Virginia ranks first in the country in fewest points allowed per game, at a remarkable 55.5. Head coach Tony Bennett has implemented a pack-line style defense, which disables opponents from driving into the lane and finishing without a contest.

    As soon as a player escapes the first line of defense, additional players move over to stop the ball. Virginia's defense is largely predicated on making the proper rotation.

    Not only does Virginia play defense as one complete unit, but it has outstanding individual defenders as well. This entire unit could potentially inhibit Michigan State from scoring quickly and easily.

    On the other end of the spectrum, State will desire to speed up the tempo; MSU registers over 76 points per game. Sparty has the guards quick and smart enough to advance the ball, where its athletes finish around the rim and its spot-up shooters knock down perimeter buckets.

    If Michigan State allows Virginia to dictate the pace of play, its hopes of a Final Four will probably cease. The Cavaliers are just too polished on the defensive end to lose in a half-court game.

    The Spartans must force the Cavaliers into discomfort, which means upping the tempo. This phase of the game will likely determine the victor.

Limit Harris' Open Looks

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    Joe Harris isn't the team's leading scorer, but he's Virginia's most important offensive player. The offense thrives when Harris' jumper is falling.

    Virginia likes to run Harris off of multiple ball screens in its half-court sets. The 6'6" guard excels at reading defenses off screens, whether that be rubbing off them, fading or curling. That enables him to free himself and drain open threes, something he does at a 40 percent clip.

    So how must the Spartans suppress Harris? First, they must play physically with him. This is not because Harris' frame prevents him from playing through contact, but just so he is uncomfortable. State must limit his open, unscathed looks at the hoop.

    Secondly, Michigan State has to work to fight through screens. Harris is eminent at freeing himself by reading the defense according to those screens that are set for him.

    Lastly, it must become a team-wide effort to shut him down. Every Spartan must be cognizant of Harris' existence at all times, which means communication is a must and helping others through those screens is imperative.

    It is certainly a tall order to completely eliminate Harris from the ballgame; the senior has six straight games with at least 11 points.

    But the Spartans must play as a cohesive unit to limit his open looks. As Harris struggles offensively, so do the Cavaliers.

Cut the Turnovers

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    The excess of turnovers must stop. If there is one potential area that will prevent these talented Spartans from reaching the Final Four, it is the giveaways.

    Michigan State has given the ball away 25 times in the past two contests, both of which were to double-digit seeded teams. This has become an ongoing issue for Sparty, and it is somewhat puzzling why this particular team has had such a problem with maintaining possessions.

    These Spartans are talented, experienced and used to playing with one another.

    If State is turning it over at a high rate against solid teams, what will it do against arguably the best defense in the country? This has to be an area of emphasis for Tom Izzo and the Spartans against this stingy Cavaliers defense.

    Sparty is an exceptional passing team. However, it needs to eliminate the high-risk, lazy passes and emphasize ball security on every possession.

Win the Rebounding Battle

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    Virginia is a solid rebounding team that prides itself on eliminating second-chance opportunities. The Cavaliers rank 15th in the country with a plus-6.2 rebounding advantage per game.

    Similarly, Michigan State customarily controls the glass. Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson are athletically gifted rebounders and Denzel Valentine is a premier rebounder from the guard position.

    These frontcourts will certainly clash in the paint.

    Both squads play with similar intensity and physicality, which embody their coaches' personalities. The rebounding advantage will play a pivotal role in determining which team wins.

    The Spartans have won five straight games. Understandably, they have won the rebounding battle in all of those contests as well. They will need to do so again in order to defeat Virginia.

Jump out Early

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    Virginia isn't a team that is built for comebacks. It is accustomed to playing with leads and utilizing the clock to its advantage.

    The Cavaliers only average about 66 points per game, which is due to its discipline on offense and stinginess on the defensive end.

    That means that Michigan State needs to attack right from the opening tap. State is capable of scoring points at a frenetic pace, which is one area that Virginia can't replicate.

    Seemingly every deficit that Virginia has in its favor or disadvantage is multiplied because of its disciplined style of play. If Virginia is up by 10 points with a few minutes left in the game, that deficit is very unlikely for opponents to overcome.

    Conversely, if the Cavaliers trail, then they have a tough time pouring in points in bunches. They are a steady, even-keeled group that is used to playing in close games or with leads.

    Sparty needs to make them uncomfortable. Jumping out to an early lead is an effective way to do so.