Michigan State-Virginia preview

The Virginia Cavaliers have a proven way of beating you with clutch shots, grit and unrelenting defense.

Bob Donnan/Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

Virginia doesn’t have any marquee players, but it’s accomplished plenty as a team this season.

The Cavaliers beat Duke and Syracuse, and held their own against other strong teams en route to going 30-6, winning both the ACC regular-season and tournament titles, and getting the No. 1 seed in the East Regional of the NCAA tournament.

Still, after watching videotape of Michigan State, his Sweet 16 opponent Friday night at Madison Square Garden in New York, Virginia coach Tony Bennett had this evaluation:

"In my opinion, the best team we have played all year."

Coaches are prone to hyperbole in boosting upcoming tourney opponents, but Bennett has plenty of supportive evidence. The Spartans haven’t won a Big Ten or NCAA tournament game by fewer than seven points — including convincing wins over Wisconsin and Big Ten regular-season champ Michigan.

"Michigan State is playing their best basketball," Bennett said. "They suffered a lot of injuries, and now they’re full strength. And they really breezed through the Big Ten Conference championship."

Virginia, winners of 18 of its last 19 games, knows a thing or two about breezing through the second half of the season — although it did have some early clunkers. The Cavaliers lost by 10 points at home to Wisconsin and got blown out by 35 points at Tennessee.

"I think the bottom line is, this is one of the best defensive teams in the country," Spartans coach Tom Izzo said of Virginia. "They’re solid, they don’t take chances, they’re physical.

"From what you can do nowadays, they help each other. They move together."

The Cavaliers don’t have stars like Michigan State’s Adreian Payne and Gary Harris, both of whom figure to become first-round NBA picks. But they do have a proven way of beating you with clutch shots, grit and unrelenting defense.

The Spartans led the Big Ten by holding opponents to .400 shooting on field-goal attempts, and had a 5.3 rebounding edge per game.

Virginia has been even more disheartening to go against, limiting teams to .386 shooting and holding a 6.2 advantage in rebounds.

Buckets definitely will be earned in this game.

Payne, who plays beyond his 6-foot-10 frame because of a 7-4 wingspan, has the potential to make the difference against Virginia. He’s averaging 16.6 points and 7.3 rebounds. He’s also made .438 of his three-point shots and is shooting .780 at the free throw line.

"His ability to shoot out there and what he’s added to his game is impressive," Bennett said. "(Like Frank) Kaminsky at Wisconsin, (Jabari) Parker, when he plays the four or five (power forward or center) at Duke, it just means in your matchups, you guard him and be sound.

"He’s quite a threat, multidimensional. He can even put it on the floor."

Kaminsky had nine points and 12 rebounds against Virginia, making only four of 11 shots. Parker averaged 16 points in two games — scoring 23 in a loss and eight in a win — but shot only .314.

So although Payne would appear to provide a big advantage, the Cavs have subdued other highly-talented big men. Virginia gets good defense down low from 6-8 Akil Mitchell (6.9 points, 7.0 rebounds) and 6-8 Anthony Gill (8.8 points, 4.1 rebounds).

"Maybe I’ll put London on Payne," said Bennett, joking about point guard London Perrantes. "But it’s got to be our team defense. And when Akil’s on him, he’ll have his hands full."

Perrantes, with 5.4 points and 3.8 assists per game, has become a leader as a freshman. He meshes well with two very big guards in 6-6 Joe Harris (11.8 points) and 6-5 Malcolm Brogdon (12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists).

Watching that trio match up with Harris (16.9 points, 4.1 rebounds), point guard Keith Appling (11.7 points, 4.6 assists) and Denzel Valentine (8.1 points, 6.0 rebounds) will be telling.

"Their perimeter play’s so impressive," Bennett said. "They stretch the floor, put it on the floor. Harris is special, and the other guys are terrific.

"It’s going to be a battle of attrition."

Izzo’s worried about the recent foul trouble of his top players once again becoming a factor. He’s encouraging them to allow an occasional bucket to keep their foul totals in check.

"I think it’ll be kind of a slugfest because both teams kind of do play a little similar," Izzo said. "Although we probably run more, they run more than you think."

Bennett said a running game would mean "we’re in trouble" and instead is emphasizing the will to win.

"You don’t know how often you’re going to come down this road," said Bennett, whose school has not played in the Sweet 16 since 1995. "And it’s worth the struggle. It’s worth the hunger that you need.

"It’s worth laying it on the line in practice, like you didn’t think you could … and when that brass ring is coming around — we talked about it — try to grab it with both hands."