Virginia, Michigan State both playing underdog card

The Virginia Cavaliers claimed the No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament's East Region, but 4-seed Michigan State is favored in the two teams' Sweet 16 matchup.

Bob Donnan/Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

It’s tough to imagine a Sweet 16 where a No. 1 seed is an underdog against a No. 4 seed. In fact, it’s only happened one other time since 1992, when No. 1 seed Washington lost to No. 4 seed Louisville in the round of 16. But here we are again, according to the experts in Las Vegas.

Oddsmakers aside, everyone from television analysts to President Barack Obama not only has No. 4-seed Michigan State (28-8) beating No. 1-seed Virginia (30-6) on Friday night in Madison Square Garden, but many also have the Spartans winning the whole thing. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, whose team has been stricken by injuries all season and is finally getting both healthy and hot at the right time, likes his team plenty.

But even he has been a little overwhelmed at how many are picking his team.

"Do I think we’re any better than any other team? No. Do I think that we have just as good a chance to move on as any team in this tournament? Yes, but I don’t think we’re — I always say, somebody has got to be picked. Was I surprised? Yes, on the number of people," Izzo said. "But I told (the team), you can embrace it. That’s probably not good. You can panic over it. That’s probably not good. I think you’ve got to deal with it. I think what this team has been through this year and the ups and downs and the ‘put a fork in you’ and praise you and all the things they’ve been through, I think they can handle it, and I thought we did a pretty good job of handling it. But how much does it motivate another team? That I don’t know. I don’t know about the opposition.

"But I still will go with this: If you get picked to be the best, it’s a lot more fun to try to prove people right than prove people wrong in my estimation. Now, back 15 years ago, I wanted to prove everybody wrong. Now I kind of look at it the other way. I’d like to prove everybody right. And I’m more embracing that than I am panicking over it."

The Spartans steamrolled their way past Delaware before struggling some with 13-seed Harvard, only to make plays down the stretch to win.

Virginia, meanwhile, was the other way around. The Cavaliers struggled with 16-seed Coastal Carolina before pulling away and then dominating No. 8-seed Memphis. They are facing a completely unique kind of pressure.

The Cavaliers and their coach Tony Bennett, in his fourth year at the helm, aren’t the same kind of long-established program led by a long-time head coach that Michigan State is. They’re not used to being in this position. They haven’t been in a Sweet 16 since 1995, and the program hasn’t been to a Final Four since 1984.

The players aren’t aware of that history, but they are new to the stage.

"I’m sure there’ll be nerves. It’s a big game," Bennett said. "You’re stepping into that and it’s a special opportunity, but I thought we were a little tight (against Coastal Carolina). I think now looking back on it, you’re the 1-seed going against the 16 and something like (a 16-seed beating a 1-seed has) never happened.

Final Four . . . for four

"I think you have to have the right mindset. Our guys have an inner confidence about them, but I know they’ll have to be ready. It’s too hard for me to say if they’ll just be loose, not have any thoughts. I’m sure there’ll be a little bit of nerves and you’ll have to establish that right away, but you’ve got to get to your game and it’s going to be a war for us to be successful."

Bennett said Michigan State will be the best opponent the Cavaliers have faced this season. And Izzo seemed to have a particular fondness for the stifling Cavaliers defense, a throwback to the Big 10 when — as Izzo put it — you were "allowed" to play physical.

There are similarities, though. Both programs are defensive-minded and used to imposing their will on opponents. Both are led by important seniors — Michigan State with Adreian Payne (averaging 16.6 points and 7.3 rebounds) and Keith Appling (11.7 points, 4.6 assists), and Virginia with Joe Harris (11.8 points, 40.5 percent 3-pointers) and Akil Mitchell (6.9 points, 7.0 rebounds). Both sets of seniors have deferred to younger classmates, like sophomore Malcolm Brogdon who led Virginia in scoring (12.6 points per game) and Michigan State’s Gary Harris, who led the Spartans with nearly 17 per game.

Izzo’s charm comes from his ability to play the underdog role, though, as he so often has been able to in NCAA tournament matchups against perennial powers like North Carolina, Kansas, Duke and Kentucky. He tried to grasp at anything that might let his team hang on to that role.

"There’s definitely — I’ll bet you more people picking Virginia the way they played the other night than us, and I don’t care either way to be honest with you. I hope (the team doesn’t), either. I hope they realize and understand when you get to the Sweet 16 … it just doesn’t matter," Izzo said. "The best team who plays the best is going to win, and that’s what we’ve got to do, no matter who’s the favorite, who’s the underdog, where the bull’s eye is, who’s picking you to win.

"I guess the only thing is I don’t mind letting down alums, but man, the President, I don’t want to let him down. That’s a little bigger."

Virginia is experiencing the kind of success its program hasn’t seen in decades, and Bennett is understandably the toast of Charlottesville. His team is also the last ACC team standing, which, in a league that includes North Carolina and Duke (and now Syracuse and Pittsburgh), is almost unheard of.

But Virginia is not just happy to be here.

"I’ve told them many times … that you don’t know how often you’re going to come down this road, and it’s worth the struggle. It’s worth the hunger that you need," Bennett said. "When that brass ring’s coming around, try to grab it with both hands. To certainly be thankful is what you have to have, but you’d better have a hunger and a passion for what’s in front of you and approach it that way, and that’s the only way to advance in these kinds of settings."