No. 7 MSU won't be bound by its seeding
Charlotte, N.C. – Michigan State is an underdog.
The seedings say so. The records say so.
Just don't try and convince the Spartans.
"I don't know that I look at it like that," junior Matt Costello said. "We feel like we're a national-championship caliber team. We haven't finished some games, which has hurt us. But we're a good team."
That theory will be put to the test Sunday when No. 7 Michigan State takes on No. 2 Virginia in the East Region of the NCAA Tournament at Time Warner Cable Arena.
The Cavaliers (30-3) are the regular-season champion of the ACC and a team many believe deserved a No. 1 seed. The Spartans (24-11) tied for third place in a jumbled Big Ten and have had a penchant for letting leads disappear and treating the foul line like it's a punishment.
But almost none of that will matter when the teams take another shot at each other in the round of 32, just a year shy of last season when Michigan State, then a No. 4 seed, eliminated No. 1 Virginia in the Sweet 16.
"I don't feel like an underdog because this is Michigan State," senior Branden Dawson said. "We always play better around this time. We know they are a No. 2 seed and they are a good team, but we'll come ready to play and have a chip on our shoulder."
That proved to be a common theme Saturday as each team was careful not to offer any bulletin-board material.
While Dawson said the Spartans will have the chip, Denzel Valentine was sure the Cavaliers would.
"They were a No. 1 seed (last year) and everybody thought they would make the Final Four and they had high expectations," he said. "And we took it from them."
And Michigan State coach Tom Izzo used it to take a shot at his 1-8 record against Duke, the No. 1 seed in the South Region.
"Well, I don't know," he said. "I've got a chip on my shoulder every time I play Duke, it sure as hell hasn't helped."
The Virginia players refused to call their matchup with Michigan State a revenge game, but they also admitted to noticing the Spartans when the bracket was released.
But any idea of rehashing last year's loss was quickly dismissed.
"For us to sit here and dwell on what happened last year, it's not going to help us win this game tomorrow," said Justin Anderson, who scored 15 off the bench in Virginia's win over Belmont on Friday. "We're just going to accept what we have to do and go in very hungry and try to come out on top."
Coming out on top is much more likely now for the Cavaliers with Anderson back in the lineup. He missed eight games this season after breaking a finger and undergoing an appendectomy.
He has slowly worked back into the rotation, returning to play two games in the ACC Tournament before coming off the bench to spark the victory over Belmont.
"It's good to see," Virginia coach Tony Bennett said. "Just to see him have a shot go in and see him moving better and get a block, that was important. Everybody asks is he full strength? As much as he's missed, he can't be, but he is certainly closer and to see him have some success in that game and give us a lift."
While the Cavaliers get Anderson back, the Spartans don't get Adreian Payne and Gary Harris back from last year's team that came out on top. They do get Dawson, who scored 24 and grabbed 10 rebounds in the last meeting and had 14 second-half points against Georgia.
He will be tested with the size and strength of Virginia and the best defense in the nation, one that is allowing only 51.2 points a game.
It will be difficult for Michigan State, which wants to push the pace and score in transition. But if the Spartans are shooting well, the Cavaliers' defensive style could play into their favor.
"I think we're going to shoot well," senior guard Travis Trice said. "Virginia does a really good job of really packing it in and also their length helps them. I think the driving kicks are going to be there, we're just going to play smart and not turn the ball over."
And Michigan State will have Izzo, who enters the game 12-1 in the round of 32 and 19-4 overall in the second game of a weekend in the NCAA Tournament.
The players enter the game confident in their game plan, but Izzo gives credit to the entire program for success in advancing.
"The players have done an incredible job buying into it," Izzo said. "But the turnarounds, that's my staff, my managers, my video guy. It's not me, it's them. They do all the work and I just direct the orchestra."
Whether Michigan State proves that orchestra has another winning tune will be decided on Sunday afternoon. But if history is any sort of indicator, the Spartans will like being the No. 7 against the No. 2.
The last time it happened, No. 7 Michigan State blew out No. 2 Florida, 68-46, in 2003 in Tampa, Fla.
"It's going to be tough, but at the end of the day we're good enough players and we're close enough that when it gets tough and when there's adversity we just band together," Valentine said. "We can do this, we've played all the top teams in the country either at home or on the road or at a neutral spot, so it's new because it's the NCAA Tournament, but we've been here before."