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2014 NCAA Tournament: Game preview for Michigan State vs. Virginia Sweet 16 game

Tom Izzo's Spartans have been stopped the past two years in the Sweet 16. Can they break through against the #1 seed Cavaliers?

Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports






The Sweet 16 has not treated the Spartans well the past two years. In 2012 top-seeded Michigan State could only manage 44 points in a loss to #4 seeded Louisville. Last year the Spartans played Duke well for the first half, but the Blue Devils slowly pulled away in the second half en route to a 10-point win. This year the green and white will play the #1 seed in the East, Virginia. The Cavaliers are 30-6 on the season.

Like the Spartans, the Cavaliers had a rough patch in the season, losing to Wisconsin, Green Bay, and Tennessee. Unlike MSU, all of these losses came in December. Unlike the Spartans, once 2014 began, the Cavaliers were red hot, losing only two games so far this year on the path to the ACC regular season title. Those two losses? One to Duke in Durham, and the other an overtime loss at Maryland in the final game of the ACC regular season. Virginia's won five since, including a nine point victory over Duke to win the ACC Tournament title and an 18 point victory over Memphis to make it to the Sweet 16.

Much of the Cavaliers' success comes from their defensive efficiency. Virginia ranks fifth in KenPom defensive efficiency, drawn from great field goal defense (opponents only make 41.9% of their twos), and retrieving the ball after the opponent misses (opponents recover the ball after a miss 25.9% of the time - 5th in the NCAA). This is due in part to a "pack the line" philosophy of defense taught by the Cavaliers' head coach, Tony Bennett (not that Tony Bennett). If the last name sounds familiar (once again, not THAT Tony Bennett), it is because Tony Bennett is the son of one-time Wisconsin head coach Dick Bennett, who you last saw losing to MSU in the Final Four in a brutal 53-41 contest.

Our friends over at Streaking The Lawn has a great article explaining this defense, but in short: Virginia sells out on the offensive boards in order to prevent points in transition. Once in the half-court, one defender pressures the ball-handler, while the four other defensive players crowd behind an invisible line just behind the three-point arc. They allow ball rotation around the perimeter. At that time, the first on-the-ball perimeter will fall back behind that invisible line, while another on-the-ball defender will jump out to harass the ball handler. The process repeats, until the possession ends, with the goal to either force a bad shot or obtain a shot clock violation.

Here it is in action (bonus: against Michigan!):

On offense, the Cavaliers are good but not great in most areas. Like Wisconsin, Tony Bennett's Virginia squad this season doesn't turn the ball over (16.6% TO%), get a decent number of offensive boards (they rebound just a smidgen over one-third of their misses), and while they're not the best at scoring inside the arc (133rd in Division One at 49.4% for two-pointers), they compensate by making 37% of their threes. The offensive assault from outside of the arc is orchestrated by Joe Harris, who makes 40% of his threes, and freshman London Perrantes, who's taken about half as many threes as Joe Harris but has made 44% of them.

Perrantes has been the key addition to a Cavalier team that was in the NIT a season ago. A freshman point guard out of Santa Monica, California, he was not a coveted recruit, but still managed to acquire Virginia's starting point guard position in preseason. He was good enough this season to be voted to the All-ACC Freshmen team, and while he is a solid three-point shooter, he is Trice-esque in his two-point accuracy, as he's made only 31.9% of his twos on the season. Hopefully the London Perrantes two point sighting hashtag won't be making much of an appearance during the game.

So here are three ways the Spartans can make it to the Elite 8:

  • Counteract the Cavaliers' size. The heights of the Cavaliers' seven most-played players: 6'2", 6'5", 6'6", 6'6", 6'8", 6'8", and 6'11". The 6'11" player (starting center Mike Tobey) averages about 18 minutes a game, so when he's out, one would think that would give Payne a match-up advantage in the post. Conversely, if Trice and Appling are both on the court, one of the Cavalier players will have a distinct size advantage. Good player rotation is going to be key for the Spartans.
  • Beat Virginia's defense through the air. More specifically, three-pointers. This article has a good analysis of how to beat a pack-the-line defense; it states that even though one of the goals of a pack-the-line defense is to limit ball movement to outside the three point line, openings can be found. The Spartans have six players shooting 35% plus from three (you can discount that to five if you think Appling's wrist is affecting his shot), and much like some football teams have to pass to open up the run, Michigan State might have to shoot three-pointers to open up the inside. Effective shooting percentage (eFG% - think field goal percentage but with threes counted 1.5 more times as twos), as always, will be a key - out of the Cavaliers' six worst performances in defensive eFG%, they've lost four of those.
  • Solidify the help defense. Staying on the eFG% thing for one more sentence - the Cavaliers lost five of their worst six games in terms of eFG% this season. In terms of regular ol' field goal percentage, there's little difference; in that case Virginia loses five of their worst seven performances in terms of that stat. This makes sense beyond the obvious reason of more made shots = more points: The Cavaliers don't make it a point to crash the boards on offense, and don't shoot free throws all that well (67.1%, 271st in the NCAAs). If Virginia isn't making shots they have few other ways of scoring effectively, so denying open shots will be key much more so than in other games.
While KenPom has the Cavaliers winning 64-62 and gives the Spartans a 37% chance to win (the KenPom algorithm doesn't factor in injuries), Vegas has the Spartans as two-point favorites. FiveThirtyEight essentially splits the difference, giving MSU a 51% chance of victory. Michigan State basketball is 3-0 all time against Virginia. Let's hope that streak - along with the streak of every Izzo four-year player reaching a Final Four - stays intact into Saturday and beyond.