Biggest Challenges Michigan State Faces in NCAA Tourney Matchup vs. Virginia

Steve Silverman@@profootballboyFeatured ColumnistMarch 27, 2014

Biggest Challenges Michigan State Faces in NCAA Tourney Matchup vs. Virginia

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    The Spartans are the fourth-seeded team in the East Regional, but the heat will be squarely on the shoulders of Tom Izzo's team as it gets set to face top-seeded Virginia at Madison Square Garden.

    That may not seem logical based on Michigan State's indifferent play down the stretch in the Big Ten regular season, but the Spartans brought their game to a new level during the Big Ten tournament and continued to produce in their first two games of the NCAA tournament.

    Michigan State (28-8) also attracted a lot of attention at the start of the tournament because so many basketball experts—and President Barack Obama—picked them to get to the Final Four and potentially win the tournament.

    That creates additional pressure, and it also may provide some inspiration for a very strong Virginia (30-6) team.

Fundamental Play

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    Young Kwak/Associated Press

    You don't have to be a college basketball expert to predict that Michigan State is going to have one of the best teams in the Big Ten and then make an impression in the NCAA tournament every year.

    The Spartans never disappoint in either area, and there's a good reason for that. Head coach Tom Izzo is considered one of the best coaches in the game, and the primary reason for this is his emphasis on fundamentals and team basketball. 

    He insists that his players prove themselves on defense, protect the ball and look for the open man. The Spartans are not a team that is usually going to depend on one superstar for the bulk of the scoring. That is  the case again this season.

    Michigan State has four players who average in double figures and can score at key moments. While Gary Harris is leading the way with a 16.9 points per game mark and hitting at a rate of 81.0 percent from the free-throw line, he gets plenty of support from Adreian Payne (16.6 ppg), Keith Appling (11.7 ppg) and Branden Dawson (11.0 ppg).

    When the Spartans spread around the scoring, that makes it difficult for them to be beaten.

Prevent Virginia from Slowing the Game Down

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    Virginia rose to the top of the Atlantic Coast Conference this season, which was an impressive achievement for head coach Tony Bennett and his players.

    While the Cavaliers have a talented all-around team, it's their defense that makes them stand out. The Cavaliers had the top-ranked defense in the nation as they gave up just 55.5 points per game.

    In addition to playing a hounding style when their opponents have the ball, the Cavs like to slow the game down when they are on offense. The Spartans do not want to slow it down; they want to get out on the run and put the Cavs on their heels.

    Virginia's style of play should not be a surprise for Michigan State fans. Bennett was an assistant on his father's staff (Dick Bennett) at Wisconsin for many years, and the Spartans and the Badgers have engaged in many slow-down games over the years where the winner was usually the first team to score 50 points.

    Izzo does not want that kind of game this time around. However, if Virginia establishes the kind of pace it wants, it could mean big problems for the Spartans.

Production off the Bench

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    Michigan State wants to attack with its depth. While the starting five will obviously be the focus, Izzo's bench is capable of turning any game around.

    Guard Travis Trice is capable of providing instant offense. He is averaging 7.6 ppg, but he is a solid three-point shooter who can fill it up when he gets hot. He is connecting on 44.8 percent of his shots from beyond the arc.

    Forwards Matt Costello and Kenny Kaminski are capable players down low. They can play solid defense against excellent offensive players and can also make key plays on the offensive end. Costello is averaging 4.2 ppg and 3.5 rpg, while Kaminski is averaging 5.1 ppg and can be difficult to guard.

    If the Spartans bench can play strong defense and make an offensive contribution, it will give them a good chance of surviving against Virginia.

Contain Malcolm Brogdon and Joe Harris

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    While Virginia is not a star-laden team, the Spartans have to be quite concerned with Virginia guards Malcolm Brogdon and Joe Harris.

    Brogdon can trigger the Virginia attack with his athleticism, defensive proficiency and all-around talent. He is the Cavs' leading scorer, averaging 12.6 ppg, and he is a demon from the line where he is connecting on 87.5 percent of his free throws.

    Harris is the other half of this one-two punch, as he is averaging 11.8 ppg and shooting 44.1 percent from the field. Brogdon and Harris are also big factors on the glass, as they combine for 11.2 rebounds per game.

    Denzel Valentine, Gary Harris and Keith Appling are all going to have to be at their best to keep Brogdon and Joe Harris from taking over the game for Virginia.

Rumor Mill

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    Tom Izzo's consistency and productivity have made him one of the top coaches in college basketball. He often finds his name in the rumor mill, and there are often suggestions that he will leave the Spartans for greener pastures.

    This year, the whispers have the Detroit Pistons going after Izzo to see if he would be interested in turning that moribund team around.

    It doesn't matter that Izzo has tried to pour cold water on those rumors, because they still exist. According to Bob Wojnowski of The Detroit News, Izzo has denied having spoken with Pistons owner Tom Gores and told a national radio audience that he was "150 percent" not interested in going to Detroit's NBA franchise.

    No matter what Izzo says or how strong his denials are, the rumors are a distraction for his team. Perhaps they are not front of mind when the Spartans are on the court, but when they are in the locker room or traveling, it's something for Izzo, his staff and his players to think about.

    That can't help them play their best game against a top-rated opponent.