Hey. Y'all doing anything tonight? Say around 10 PM? Maybe a nice quiet night of board games with some friends? Sampling artisanal bath products at your local Trader Joe's? Wait, what's that you say? There's a Virginia basketball game tonight? Oh, guess I should watch that instead.
KJ from The Only Colors exchanged questions and answers with us. Make sure to swing over to TOC, check out our answers to KJ's questions, and appreciate the hoopz knowledge of our Sweet Sixteen opponent.
STL: One of the most repeated refrains about Michigan State through the season was, "If they can get healthy and stay healthy, look out." What was the most significant injury the Spartans suffered during the year, and how is the team different now than it was in, say, February?
TOC: All four of MSU's stars (Keith Appling, Gary Harris, Branden Dawson, and Adreian Payne) missed time at some point this season due to injury. On paper, Payne was the hardest to replace, as the other post players on the team are all pretty green. But, in retrospect, it looks like Branden Dawson's absence actually had the biggest impact, as the team was 18-1 when he injured his hand (we blame Dan Dakich) and then went just 4-5 during the games he missed. Of course, Payne was still out at the time that Dawson went down and Appling missed three of the same games, so it's hard to say.
Regardless, everyone is healthy now (with the arguable exception of Appling, who has struggled to shoot the ball effectively since re-injuring his wrist, hitting double figures in points just twice in the 11 games he's been back). And the team has been hitting on all cylinders since the start of the conference tournament (which they won). They're limiting turnovers, dominating the paint on both ends, knocking down three-pointers, and crashing the glass over the last five games. The offense has been much more consistent than it was during February, when the team's efficiency seemed to yo-yo every other game. They've been particularly good in the first halves of recent games, but then struggled to varying degrees in the second halves (particularly against Harvard).
STL: Tom Izzo is Sparty's second coach since 1976, when Jud Heathcote took the helm and set Michigan State on a sharp upward trajectory. With 17 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, it seems safe to place Izzo's Spartans in the category of NCAA dynasties. What has been the foundation on which Izzo has built such sustained success? What are the hallmarks of the great Tom Izzo teams?
TOC: Izzo has definitely taken the program to a new level. Heathcote had some success (including the national championship with Magic Johnson), but it was sporadic at best. Izzo brought a new level of intensity, organization, and talent. His calling card, of course, has been rebounding (as anyone who's read an article about his famous "War Drill"—a rebounding drill he ran at one point with the players in football pads and helmets--can attest). MSU has regularly ranked among the national leaders in rebounding percentage on both ends of the court during this tenure.
Ironically, MSU's rebounding hasn't been the most consistent this season, as the team has taken a more perimeter-based approach on offense. On the defensive end, the team has improved as the season has gone along and is now up to #15 in the nation in rebounding percentage. But they're only at #104 on offense. Dawson is the most consistent factor on the offensive glass.
STL: Adreian Payne is obviously Michigan State's stud and main offensive focus. Guys like Keith Appling and Gary Harris can fill it up in their own right as well. But who are some of the less heralded players that Virginia fans need to watch out for? Which guys can come off the bench and change the course of a game?
TOC: The four other consistent contributors outside the Big Four are: Denzel Valentine, a versatile guard who's both a great passer and a key defensive rebounder; Travis Trice, an undersized back-up point guard who can knock down the three; Matt Costello, a center with great shot-blocking instincts who's still a bit of a liability on offense; and Kenny Kaminski, a stretch four who's shot nearly 50 percent on three-pointers in his first season.
Izzo has had to rely on the bench a bit more than he'd probably like to given that the team has struggled with excessive fouling of late.
STL: New York City is one of the bigger destinations for Virginia alums, and I would guess Madison Square Garden will see many of them flocking in. What's Michigan State's fan base like in the New York area? Will more of the green-and-white there be from nearby, or flying in from East Lansing?
TOC: I don't have a great sense of how many Spartans will be there Friday night and where they'll come from. Michigan State has a strong national alumni base, as evidenced by how much green there was at the Rose Bowl in January. Sounds like tickets are hard to come by for this weekend, though, with UConn also in that regional semifinal, and some fans might be holding out for the potential trip to Dallas next weekend.
STL: Expert predictions seem sharply split for Friday night. Some focus on Virginia's closer-than-it-should-have-been opening game against Coastal Carolina, others on the Memphis beat em down in the "third" round. The statistical projections are all calling for a close game, probably scoring in the low 60s with only a possession or two difference in the final score. What is going to make the difference, and who ya got?
TOC: The two things I worry about most as an MSU supporter are (1) the Virginia defense taking away MSU's very effective transition offense and (2) the methodical Virginia offense resulting in MSU getting impatient and fouling. MSU's half-court offense has been getting better of late, as they've gotten the ball to Payne in the post more (he's also a threat from behind the three-point line), but it can still be a bit of an adventure at times. And, as mentioned above, the major kink in the team's statistical armor is allowing opponents to score from the free throw line.
Still, MSU is exhibiting the talent that led observers to rank them #2 in the country to start the season right now. If they play to their abilities for 40 minutes, they're very hard to match up with. I am a devout non-predictor of game results. But I'll say that, even against a 1-seed with as sterling a profile as the Cavaliers have, an MSU loss would be a major disappointment.