If the majority of expert commentators were on the money with their predictions back on Selection Sunday, then there's a good chance fans at Madison Square Garden for the NCAA East Regional will be watching the eventual champion. Fourth-seeded Michigan State was the trendy pick to go all the way when the 68-team field was announced, and this Spartans senior class is due to at least reach the Final Four, as every previous senior coached by Tom Izzo has done.
Of course, if this NCAA Tournament has taught us anything, it's to expect the unexpected. Izzo's team could tell you that after Ivy League champion Harvard fought the Spartans down to the wire before losing. As the tournament moves into the Sweet 16, the NCAA landscape is a place where the mighty have fallen, from undefeated and top-seeded Wichita State against preseason No. 1 Kentucky to Duke's mind-boggling loss to 14th-seeded Mercer.
The survivors in the East should light up the Garden stage with some of the best games of the tournament Friday night, when the Spartans (28-8) meet top-seeded Virginia (30-6) and third-seeded Iowa State (28-7) faces the "home" team in seventh-seeded Connecticut (28-8), which knocked off former Big East rival Villanova to get back to New York.
The last truly big moment for the Huskies in the Garden came three years ago, when Kemba Walker led them to a remarkable five wins in five nights for the Big East Tournament title before adding six wins and the NCAA championship. No doubt retired coach Jim Calhoun will be on hand to watch hand-picked successor Kevin Ollie try to fashion another upset with a perimeter-oriented team led by guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright and wing man DeAndre Daniels.
They've got a chance against Iowa State since it lost forward Georges Niang, who provided a strong inside presence, to a season-ending foot injury. But the Cyclones still are dancing along with coach Fred Hoiberg, who celebrated a third-round win over North Carolina with a locker room dance that was caught on camera. The toughness of senior point guard DeAndre Kane and senior forward Melvin Ejim, the Big 12 player of the year, will test the Huskies.
The late game on Friday figures to be a defense-minded brawl. ACC champion Virginia leads the country, allowing 55.4 points per game, which is no surprise once you understand coach Tony Bennett is the son of the great Dick Bennett, who coached terrific defensive teams at Wisconsin-Green Bay and Wisconsin. The Cavaliers are led by senior guard Joe Harris but rely heavily on sophomores Anthony Gill and Malcolm Brogdon and freshman guard London Perrantes.
They'll be matched against the experience of Michigan State seniors Adreian Payne at forward and Keith Appling in the backcourt plus guards Gary Harris and Branden Dawson. Izzo has made six Final Fours since taking over in 1995 but last went in 2010, so it's now or never if he wants to extend his streak of getting his seniors to at least one Final Four.
Michigan State is a fourth seed because it went through a 5-7 stretch at midseason while fighting injuries, but the Spartans are healthy now. Iowa State remains a dangerous team that could emerge from the East, but the question is whether the Cyclones have enough to overcome the loss of Niang. Whatever happens, the story lines in the East should generate enough drama to satisfy a New York audience.