Wojo: Virginia could make MSU uncomfortably numb

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Denzel Valentine and Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn were dancing Saturday. Will the Spartans still be doing so Sunday night?

Charlotte, N.C. – This will be a visit to the dentist, without the Novocain. It'll be an action movie in slow motion, without Liam Neeson. It'll be a test of patience, the ultimate measure of Michigan State's mental mettle.

Virginia doesn't just wear opponents down, it bores them down. Its offense runs on three speeds – slow, slower and shot-clock violation. None of this sounds like flattery but it is, and now healthy again, Virginia is as good as anybody not named Kentucky.

But the Cavaliers can be beaten and the Spartans at least know the formula, as they showed in their 61-59 regional semifinal victory last year. Executing that formula Sunday (12:10 p.m.) for a spot in the Sweet 16 is an enormous task, but I'll say this: If Michigan State can pull the big upset, it's suddenly a reasonable Final Four pick again. Villanova and Oklahoma are the top teams on the other side of the East bracket, but I contend second-seeded Virginia is the biggest obstacle.

One tedious step and one 35-second possession at a time. The Spartans have shown they can agitate and motivate, but can they concentrate? That means not getting lulled by Virginia's offense, or mauled by its defense. That means the Spartans have to run when they can but not when they can't, if that makes sense (it does).

"I'd say 'focus' is the key word of the weekend," Izzo said. "We know we're fatigued. But can we stay focused for those long possessions, or the constant 'screen, rescreen, boom, boom, boom'? They're so good at it, it's gonna take some discipline on our part."

Sleeper pick

That was the message of the day, starting in the morning when Magic Johnson addressed the team and spoke to the guards, Denzel Valentine, Travis Trice and Tum Tum Nairn Jr. It's no secret the Spartans want to run -- they're not as physically imposing as a year ago, and their halfcourt offense occasionally looks like a fire drill.

Johnson is around a lot this time of year, so there's no awe factor for the Spartans. Well, except maybe for the freshman Nairn, who hung on every word. Valentine also listened intently, as the one who usually decides whether to push the ball.

"(Johnson) just told me I gotta be smarter, communicate more with my teammates and be a little bit better leader," Valentine said. "He says sometimes I can get a little carried away and I need to make the simple plays. When people say I'm a poor man's Magic, and then he comes in the room and starts giving advice, my ears perk up like a dog's."

This will be another dog-day afternoon, as Tony Bennett continues to build a formidable program at Virginia, with elements of Wisconsin and Michigan State. Bennett's father, Dick, used to coach the Badgers and there are similarities, although nobody plays defense like Virginia.

I'd say the numbers are numbingly boring, but the Cavaliers might find that offensive. They allow an average of 50.8 points per game, lowest in the nation, and held six opponents under 40. With their pack-line defense – packing four players inside the arc, completely clogging the lane – they produced scores such as 45-26 over Rutgers and 57-28 over Georgia Tech.

Don't sleep on the Cavaliers, even if you can't help it. Some of the stats are incredible, and some are a product of their deliberate offense, which reduces the number of possessions. When you do get the ball, they race back on defense with staggering precision. They've surrendered 87 fastbreak points all season, an average of 2.7 per game.

It can be frustrating for opponents. It can be annoying for viewers, not that the Cavaliers care.

"If winning basketball annoys people, that's awkward to me," said forward Darion Atkins, the ACC Defensive Player of the Year. "The fact everybody is hating on us is kind of funny. People say we try to wait until the shot clock goes down, and our possessions aren't fun, aren't exciting. I think the fact we don't run up and down the court jacking up shots, that's a good thing."

Style points

It's been tearing up the ACC the past two seasons, with back-to-back regular-season crowns. It takes a smart attack to dent Virginia, and in last year's Tournament, Dawson scored 24 points and Adreian Payne added 16. The guards didn't force many shots, and didn't make many either. For the most part, the Spartans resisted temptation.

It is tempting, because Virginia isn't star-laden, just a superbly constructed team that rarely strays from its style. Its best player, junior guard Justin Anderson, returned from a hand injury and an appendectomy and is approaching form, scoring 15 in the 79-67 first-round victory over Belmont.

You think the Spartans enjoy the over-looked, under-recruited angle? The Cavaliers don't have a McDonald's All-American on their roster and are sick of hearing how they muck things up. The hotly-contested loss to Michigan State last year added fuel.

"We have to be physical from the jump, because last year I felt (the Spartans) punched us in the mouth early and controlled the tempo," Atkins said. "We have to match the physicality and get back in transition, moreso than last year. I feel like they're a bit quicker, more transition-oriented."

That's what the Spartans would like to be, but there's a lot of things Izzo would like them to be. Both teams have vulnerabilities, we've just seen many more in Michigan State. But in Virginia's last two games, a loss to North Carolina and the win over Belmont, it allowed its two highest shooting percentages of the season.

Hmm. An anomaly, or a crack for the Spartans to run through?

"We want to run, but part of our success in this Tournament, we've been able to play at different people's tempo," Izzo said. "If you're just a running team and (their defense) does what they do, it dissolves your team. It won't dissolve ours. If we have to get in the halfcourt, we've done it before."

If the Spartans can do it on this day, against this sticky opponent, without the use of Novocain, they might be able to do it against almost anyone.