Michigan State coach Tom Izzo says his teams, out of necessity, have developed a change of pace in their style of play. "We could play racehorse," Izzo said Thursday at the Garden, "or we could play smashmouth."
Against ACC regular-season and tournament champion Virginia, the leading defensive team in the nation, there's little doubt how their Sweet 16 matchup in the East Regional nightcap will play out Friday night. As Virginia guard Joe Harris said, "I would say smashmouth. We prefer to play a half-court, grind-it-out, smashmouth type of game."
The Cavaliers (30-6) are the top seed in the East after a steady climb up the rankings. The Spartans (28-8) were ranked No. 1 early in the season, stumbled because of a slew of injuries but got back on track to win the Big Ten Tournament and arrive as the fourth seed.
Despite the lower seed, Michigan State widely is perceived not only as the favorite to win the East but to take the NCAA title. But Izzo paid respect to Virginia as possibly the best team in the country, saying, "When you beat Duke and Syracuse the way they did and a lot of other teams, there's no question they're no fluke."
Izzo predicted a physical game because he's very familiar with Virginia coach Tony Bennett, who is the son of former Wisconsin coach Dick Bennett and was an assistant on his father's Big Ten staff. "I played so many times against his dad," Izzo said, "and this is a chip off the old block. Those games were just wars."
The Spartans rely heavily on 6-10 center Adreian Payne. Virginia senior Harris is a leader in the backcourt, and senior forward Akil Mitchell serves as defensive stopper up front.
Drawing on his Big Ten experience against Izzo, Bennett said, "It's going to be a war of attrition. Hopefully, it will be a physical game. Are we equipped to play well against them? When we're playing at our best, our style gives us a chance to beat the best . . . We'll get our chance [Friday night].''