Friday Night Live: Cavaliers Hope to Put on a Show in NCAA’s Sweet 16

At Madison Square Garden, the top-seeded University of Virginia meets No. 4 Michigan State University in an NCAA Tournament East Region men’s basketball semifinal late Friday night in New York City. The appearance in the “Sweet 16” will be Tony Bennett’s first with the Cavaliers, but not his first as a head coach.

In March 2008, Bennett’s Washington State University team entered the NCAA tourney as the East Region’s No. 4 seed. After first- and second-round wins over Winthrop University and Notre Dame University, respectively, the Cougars ran into the top-seeded University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

The program’s first trip to the Sweet 16 did not end well for Wazzu, which fell 68-47 to UNC in Charlotte, N.C. A year later, Bennett left Pullman, Wash., for U.Va., where he has posted a 106-59 record and revitalized a moribund program.

As Virginia’s showdown with Michigan State nears, Bennett has reflected on how he prepared for that 2008 game with North Carolina.

“I definitely have thought about that and said, ‘OK, is there anything I’d adjust heading into this?’” Bennett said after practice Tuesday night at John Paul Jones Arena. “And there will be a couple little adjustments from that, just because you have a different team and you’re playing a different team.”

In the end, though, the Cougars lost not because they prepared poorly or were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the game, Bennett said. They lost because the supremely talented Tar Heels, whose lineup included Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Danny Green, were superior that day.

“We played a really good North Carolina team,” Bennett said, “and this is a really good Michigan State team.”

MSU, which pounded archrival Michigan 69-55 in the Big Ten tournament final, has won five games in a row. Injuries slowed Tom Izzo’s team during the regular season, but the Spartans are healthy now, and many prognosticators – including President Obama – have picked them to win the NCAA title.

“I don’t mind letting down alums,” Izzo told reporters with a laugh Tuesday in East Lansing, Mich., “but man, the president, I don’t want to let him down. That’s a little bigger.”

For the Cavaliers, this will be their first appearance in the Sweet 16 since 1995. The Spartans, whose NCAA tournament record under Izzo is 41-15, have reached the round of 16 for the third straight season and sixth time in seven years.

“I think when you look at their team and what they’ve done over the last five to six games, you can’t help but to be really, really impressed,” said Ritchie McKay, U.Va.’s associate head coach. “And it’s Tom Izzo, you know?”

McKay prepared the scouting report on the Spartans.

“They give effort every possession,” McKay said. “They’re very physical. Tenacious rebounders. I’m not sure about [Izzo’s] past teams, but this team is exceptional in transition. And they’re obviously well-coached. They’re not going to beat themselves.”

In the Atlantic Coast Conference, Virginia regularly faces some of the nation’s most storied programs, so Bennett isn’t worried that his players will be awed by the prospect of taking on Michigan State. But that doesn’t make the Spartans less formidable.

“You’re just going against a heck of a team,” Bennett said. “Again, you respect the team you’re playing, you respect the game, and you’re going to have to play well [to win]. And this will probably be the best team we’ve played this year. It looks like it on tape.”

Bennett and Izzo, both sons of the Midwest, have known each other for years.

“I have a great appreciation for what Tony has done,” Izzo said, and the respect is mutual.

“He’s absolutely one of the best coaches,” Bennett said. “What he’s built, what’s he done is so impressive. You learn from a guy like that.”

As a young coach, Izzo learned from Bennett’s father, Dick, and uncle, Jack, among others, when he worked their camps.

In 1991, Izzo was an assistant under Jud Heathcote on the Michigan State team that met the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay in the NCAA tournament’s first round. The Phoenix’s coach was Dick Bennett, whose best player was his son, a sharp-shooting point guard. The Spartans edged Green Bay 60-58 on a last-second jumper by Steve Smith.

Izzo took over as the Spartans’ head coach in 1995-96. That was also Dick Bennett’s first season as head coach at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

In 1999-2000, when the younger Bennett was a volunteer assistant on his father’s team, the Badgers went 0-4 against Izzo’s Spartans. Their final meeting came in the NCAA semifinals.

“Just a war,” Tony Bennett said of Wisconsin’s 53-41 loss to Michigan State, which won the NCAA title two nights later.

“You know, until the day I die, of all the accomplishments we’ve had, I think beating Wisconsin that year four times will probably always rank as one of the top,” Izzo said.

For Virginia, this season already ranks as one of the greatest in school history. The Wahoos (30-6) swept the ACC’s regular-season and tournament titles. Then they dispatched No. 16 seed Coastal Carolina University and the No. 8 seed University of Memphis, respectively, in East Region second- and third-round games last weekend in Raleigh, N.C.

Now comes U.Va.’s first appearance in the Sweet 16 since 1995. Two wins at the Garden would send the ‘Hoos to the Final Four for the first time since 1984.

“Every weekend you advance, there’s more of a focus on it, it’s a higher level, it’s more intense,” Bennett said. “It’s what you aspire to, and you want to take it another step.”

Nobody wants it more than Bennett’s senior leaders, Joe Harris and Akil Mitchell, for whom any game now could be their last as Cavaliers. Sunday night in Raleigh, Harris and Mitchell helped Virginia maul Memphis 78-60 before an orange-dominated crowd at PNC Arena.

When Bennett substituted for Harris and Mitchell late in the game, he recalled Tuesday night, “I said, ‘We got more ball left.’ That’s how I greeted them when they came off the court. And that’s important. When you got guys like that, you want to coach ’em as long as possible.”

U.Va. is 0-3 all-time against Michigan State. The most memorable game in the series, though, remains the one that was started but never finished.

On Nov. 28, 2001, at the Richmond Coliseum, Virginia took on MSU in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Cavaliers came in ranked No. 8, and the Spartans, who in 2000-01 had advanced to the Final Four for the third straight season, were No. 17.

The nationally televised game drew some 11,500 fans, and they witnessed a bizarre scene at the Coliseum.

With 15:04 left in the second half and U.Va. leading 31-28, officials halted the game because of condensation on the court. Unseasonably warm weather outside, combined with the hockey ice underneath the court, had created dangerously slick conditions. The game was never completed.

“Bambi on Ice,” Pete Gillen, then Virginia’s coach, famously called it, and the fans weren’t any happier than the teams that night.

No such problems are expected at Madison Square Garden, one of the world’s most celebrated venues.

In the opener Friday night at the Garden, which hasn’t hosted an NCAA tournament game since 1961, No. 3 seed Iowa State University (28-7) meets No. 7 seed University of Connecticut (28-8). The winner will meet U.Va. or Michigan State in the East Region final Sunday at a time to be determined.

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Dan Heuchert

Assistant Director of University News and Chief Copy Editor, UVA Today Office of University Communications