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NCAA Tournament: Virginia meets Michigan State at the Garden

Bennett, Izzo square off in familiar rivalry; NCAA Tournament returns to Madison Square Garden after 53 years

Even before the Spartans’ Friday night Sweet 16 matchup against Virginia at Madison Square Garden, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said he felt sorry for Virginia coach Tony Bennett and his father.

“You know, I saw where Dick [Bennett] didn’t go to the [Memphis-Virginia] game,” Izzo said. “He was back in the hotel, and I feel bad because he should enjoy this, because his son is a protégé of him, and he did it the right way.”

Izzo should know — he has a long history competing against the Bennett family. He played basketball for Iron Mountain High in Michigan against Eau Claire Memorial High School, coached by the elder Bennett, and worked basketball camps for Dick and his brother, Jack Bennett.

In the 1991 NCAA Tournament, Izzo was an assistant coach for No. 5 seed Michigan State as the Spartans escaped with a 60-58 first round win against Bennett’s No. 12 seed Green Bay. Tony Bennett, then a star junior point guard for his dad’s Phoenix team, registered nine points and 10 assists that game, but Steve Smith hit a last-second shot for the Spartans to end Green Bay’s upset hopes.

“It was a good game in the NCAA Tournament, hard fought,” Tony Bennett said. “We were draped all over [Smith], and he hit one pretty much at the buzzer to beat us. … When I played with Larry Johnson, I said, ‘You’re lucky Michigan State beat Green Bay, because you would have had no answer for the Fighting Phoenix.’”

A decade later, Izzo and the Spartans continued to confound the Bennetts in the NCAA Tournament. In the 2000 Final Four, No. 1 seed and eventual champion Michigan State bested Wisconsin, coached by Dick Bennett and his first-year assistant coach, Tony, 53-41.

Friday night, in the first set of NCAA Tournament games played at Madison Square Garden in 53 years, Tony Bennett will try to avenge those losses against a Michigan State team seeking its second title and seventh Final Four appearance under Izzo.

“They’re probably the best team we’ll have played this year,” Bennett said. “Certainly now that they’re fully healthy. … Coach Izzo, one of the things they’ve always prided their program on is that they don’t take possessions off. That’s who they are.”

Injuries plagued the Spartans during conference play. Though senior center Adreian Payne, senior guards Gary Harris and Keith Appling, junior guard Brandon Dawson and sophomore guard Denzel Valentine started the first two Big Ten games together, they did not start again together until March 6 due to various injuries.

The five have now started seven straight games, winning the Big Ten championship and falling only to Ohio State, 69-67.

Though Dawson and Appling both suffered from injuries this season, the biggest boon to the Spartans came with the return of Payne, who scored 41 points against Delaware in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament.

Payne is second on the team in both points and rebounds per game, at 16.6 and 7.3 respectively, while his ability to shoot 3-pointers — he’s hit 39-89 this season — prompted Bennett to compare Payne to Duke freshman Jabari Parker and Wisconsin junior seven-footer Frank Kaminsky.

“His ability to shoot [from the 3-point line] and what he’s added to his game, that’s impressive,” Bennett said. “He’s quite the threat — he’s multidimensional with his post-up game, he even can put it on the floor. … You look at their other players and they certainly have ability, but he presents a great challenge that will require tremendous concentration and readiness.”

But similar to the Cavaliers, the Spartans have talent beyond their starting five, playing eight players at least 14 minutes per game in conference play.

Like Payne, freshman Kenny Kaminsky can also stretch the floor off the bench. Kaminsky, a six-foot-eight forward, leads the team in 3-point percentage, shooting 49.3 percent from beyond the arc.

Sophomore forward Matt Costello comes off the bench as well, but started 20 games this season while filling in for injured players and blocked a team-high 41 shots.

“There’s so many good players for Michigan State,” Bennett said. “Their depth is probably similar to ours. … Perimeter play is so important in the NCAA Tournament and … they can stretch the floor, they can put it on the floor. Now that they’re healthy, they’re dangerous. It’s a battle of attrition — who can make the other team earn, who can execute?”

Despite Bennett’s rave reviews of Michigan State’s players, a significant question mark entering Friday’s game is Appling’s recent play.

The team’s third-leading scorer at 11.7 points per game and leading assist-man at 4.6, Appling scored just six combined points in the first two games of the NCAA Tournament, limited by foul trouble against Harvard.

Appling and Payne were each called for four fouls in the team’s 80-73 win against the Crimson, while Valentine was whistled for four fouls and Harris fouled out against Delaware.

With players like sophomore forward Anthony Gill, who seemingly specialize in drawing fouls inside, Virginia could force the Spartans into early foul trouble.

“What worries me the most I guess would be the foul situations, because I think they’ve changed some games,” Izzo said. “When I got Appling or Harris or Payne sitting next to me for extended periods of time, especially in that first half, you get some leads, and then things happen. That probably worries me the most, and that’s what’s hurt us the most … because you don’t have a rotation pattern.”

And Izzo’s other worry?

It’s not disappointing the pundits, fans and betters in Las Vegas who picked No. 4 seed Michigan State to beat No. 1 seed Virginia and win the tournament. His concern is disappointing someone even more powerful than oddsmakers and major donors.

“I guess the only thing is I don’t mind letting down alums, but man, the President, I don’t want to let him down,” Izzo said. “That’s a little bigger.”

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