Michigan State vs. Virginia. Any game at this stage of the tournament will have a heavyweight feel. But this game feels even bigger: the preseason #2 team in the country vs. a bona fide #1 seed. Paul Wiley from Streaking the Lawn is here to help us break it down. My responses to his questions will be up over there some time soon. (UPDATE: Here they are.) I'm in bold here.
1. We've got some history with the Bennett family, as Tom Izzo struck up a rivalry with Dick's Wisconsin teams early in his head coaching tenure (including the four match-ups in MSU's 2000 national championship season). Tell us how Tony has taken a program that was stuck in perpetual .500 mode when he was hired to the heights of an NCAA tournament 1-seed over the last five years.
I would argue that a big part of it is having a defined system for players to buy into. Previous coaches at Virginia preached "We're gonna play fast and in transition," or "Winning starts with good defense," but didn't have a specific, identifiable playing style. Love them or hate them, the Pack Line defense and blocker-mover offense are both schemes with set roles for set kinds of players. On top of that, Coach Bennett came in at a time when Virginia had just made significant investments in our basketball facilities; announcers will frequently comment on how great an arena the JPJ is.
More than anything, it's Coach Bennett himself. Anyone who spends time following this team, watching how Coach relates to the players in games and how he talks about them in press conferences afterward, can see how much Coach really does love this group of guys. He gives them the praise when they've earned it, but he gets on them to make them better, too. This offseason, each player got a DVD of game footage of himself making the same one or two mistakes over and over again in different games. Coach's point wasn't "You're garbage," it was "Here is what's holding you back, focus on this in the offseason and let's win next year." I think it worked.
2. The Cavaliers look like a pretty tough nut to crack defensively, as they deny easy shots in transition and the lane, avoid fouling, and dominate the defensive glass. Give us a short tutorial on how the "pack line" defense they employ works and maybe provide some small shred of hope as to a weakness that might be exploited.
I want to couch my analysis with the caveat that I have had zero formal basketball teaching in my entire life. But to my moderately trained eye, the Pack Line works as a man defense that relies on some zone principles. The "line" is an imaginary one on the court-that Coach actually puts down in tape for the first few practices each season-just inside the three-point line. If your man doesn't have the ball, you retreat inside that line and "pack" the area in the paint. This lets our guys hedge HARD on screens, since there's help behind them to take their man if he rolls to the basket. The defender on the ball stays right in the ball handler's pocket for the same reason: if he gets beat, there's going to be a ton of bodies on the interior to close off the line of attack. The idea is to force the offense to work the ball around; each pass opens up an opportunity for an offensive mistake and takes time off the shot clock.
The best ways to attack it are if you can drain it from deep. The pack players are sunken in so good ball movement can lead to a pretty decent look from three. Duke shot pretty well against us behind the arc, and Coastal Carolina was just hitting everything in the first round to keep it close. The other way is to pass well out of double teams. The bigs double on the post fast and hard, but if your big can pass out of it then there's likely to be an open cutter.
3. Offensively, Virginia seems to rely on a balanced attack that takes care of the ball, works the clock, and knocks down three-pointers. Who and what makes the attack go? And what's with the poor free throw shooting on both ends in games involving this team (67% for, 66% against)?
Joe Harris and Malcolm Brogdon certainly get all the publicity and with good reason: They are the two who score the most and in the most ways. Both can get to the rim and shoot from outside. But I would say London Perrantes, our true freshman point guard, is actually the most important cog in our offensive machinery. He is the most cool-headed first-year player I have ever seen; others may be more talented or more athletic, but London just does not make bad decisions. He is also totally fearless, an asset the guys have dubbed his "Cali swag." He will find the open guy, he will make the pass, and the pass will put that guy in a position to score. London had the best assist-to-turnover ratio in the ACC this season, which is just one measure of his contribution. Oh, and he's lethal from three.
(This is the part of my answer where, on advice of medical professionals, I won't talk about UVa's free-throw shooting this season because oops there goes my blood pressure again, need to go lay down and do my breathing exercises.)
4. The team appears to basically use an eight-man rotation. Who are the one or two players off the bench most likely to make key plays in a close game?
Justin Anderson. Full stop. The guy is going to block something, he's going to corral the block and start the break, and he's going to do it in the game's most pivotal moment. That was sort of his modus operandi this year. His offensive production has slipped DRASTICALLY over the last five or so games, but he's a physical freak (6'6, 235 but doesn't look it) and just a defensive juggernaut. There's a reason the guy won ACC Sixth Man of the Year.
The other is Anthony Gill, but it almost doesn't seem fair to call him a bench player. He took over the second half of the Coastal Carolina game and provides an excellent complement to Akil Mitchell. When they're both on the floor, along with Perrantes, Harris, and Brogdon, Virginia can become a "pick your poison" matchup for most teams.
5. From your side of the match-up, what do you see as the three biggest keys to victory in what looks like basically a coin flip game? Care to hazard a prediction on the result?
Virginia has to limit transition buckets for Michigan State, which starts with taking good shots (and making them). One of the first things Bennett said to UVa fans when he was hired was, "You can be a great offensive rebounding team, or a great transition defense team. We're going to be a great transition defense team." So that's going to be pretty high up on the list of priorities against a Sparty team that can really get up and go. Akil Mitchell is going to have to do to Adreian Payne what he's done to Jabari Parker and some of the other top scorers in the ACC: shut them the hell down.
And we're going to have to use the fact that virtually all of the national media is calling us an underdog. When we play with nerves (Coastal) or with lackluster focus (Coastal, Maryland to end the regular season), bad things happen. But when we get pissed off and come out to prove ourselves (Syracuse, Duke in the ACC Championship game, Memphis), very very good things happen. This game is going to have a lot of the same flavor as the two Pitt games earlier this year, which Dick Bennett called a "blue-collar knuckle buster." I doubt it will ever be more than a few possessions in favor of either team, and should end within a possession of each other. It may be hope as much as prognostication, but I think the run continues and Virginia edges one out 63-61.