NEW YORK (AP) – Michigan State hasn’t changed its name but it hasn’t been said in the last couple of weeks without “finally healthy” right before it.
It’s true. The Spartans are finally healthy and they are playing like the team that started the season 18-1 and spent three weeks at the top of the AP Top 25.
“I do think we have taken giant steps in the last 2 1/2 weeks,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “We got our guys back. … I thought the Big Ten tournament we did play awfully well. I thought we played well in Spokane.
“Are we back to the team we were then? Probably not, but are we as close as we have been all year? Definitely.”
The finally healthy and fourth-seeded Spartans (28-8) meet top-seeded Virginia (30-6) on Friday night in the East Regional semifinals at Madison Square Garden. The winner will face the winner of the Connecticut-Iowa State game on Sunday for a berth in the Final Four.
The Cavaliers haven’t had any health issues to speak of and they certainly haven’t spent much time sulking over losses.
Since Jan. 18, they are 18-1, closing the season the way the Spartans started it. They won their first outright Atlantic Coast Conference regular-season title since 1981 and swept to their first ACC tournament championship in 38 years.
“I think our guys, they have been steady all year since we got into conference play,” said coach Tony Bennett, who has led the Cavaliers to three straight winning seasons for the first time since 1981-83. “I think they know what’s in front of them, and again it’s not changing anything. It’s just doing it probably a little bit better.”
Michigan State has always been known for its toughness and rebounding ability under Izzo, who had led the Spartans to six Final Fours, including the 2000 national championship. This team, Izzo’s sixth to reach the round of 16 in the last seven years, comes in averaging 76.6 points per game, about 10 points better than Virginia.
The Cavaliers, who would set a school record with a 31st win and are making their first Sweet 16 appearance since 1995, lead the nation in defense, allowing 55.5 points per game, about 11 less than Michigan State.
Izzo is ready to play either way.
“Over the years I think one of the successes we have had as a program is we could play racehorse or smash mouth,” Izzo said. “We have been able to play both.”
Joe Harris, Virginia’s second-leading scorer at 11.8 points per game, picked smash mouth of the two choices to describe the Cavaliers.
“We don’t really get up and down a whole lot,” he said. “We can, but we prefer to play halfcourt kind of a grind-it-out, smash-mouth type of game.”
The Michigan State players aren’t concerned about style of play. They are just glad to have everybody back and healthy.
“We were all frustrated, we knew we were a better team, we just hadn’t been able to put all the pieces together to show it,” said center Adreian Payne, who missed eight games with a right foot sprain and scored a school-tournament-record 41 points in the second-round win over Delaware. “So we finally got everybody together and we’re healthy and now we’re capable of showing what we can do as a team.”
Bennett is well aware of the Spartans’ success since the medical roll call ended.
“I know which Michigan State team we’re going to play and that’s the important thing,” he said. “How they played in the Big Ten tournament, I don’t want to say they breezed through it but they were at times really dominant and certainly in the NCAA tournament. That’s who they are.”
The game being in Madison Square Garden has made the weekend ever better for both teams. In a time when star high school and AAU players have been around the country in some of its biggest venues by the time they are ready for college, Izzo said Madison Square Garden is still a place players of any age know is special.
“The Garden is a like a building version of our guy Magic,” he said, referring to Magic Johnson who led the Spartans to the national title in 1979. “I can talk about players and a lot of players I talk about, these guys weren’t even born. But Magic, I can talk about him all the time and I think Madison Square Garden is like that.”
These will be the first NCAA tournament games played in Madison Square Garden since 1961.
“Regardless of where the Sweet 16 would be it would be exciting,” Harris said. “But the fact we’re playing in MSG. I mean it adds a little bit more to it and it’s very exciting.’