As 5:30 p.m. drew near on Selection Sunday, my roommate and I had to ask, could Virginia end up in Michigan State’s region again? After two hours of banter from Charles Barkley, Ernie Johnson and Co., we have our answer — and the answer is yes.
Is Virginia-Michigan State the new Yankees-Red Sox? The new UNC-Duke?
Our Cavaliers, recipients of the No. 1 seed in the Midwest, could play Denzel Valentine and the Spartans in late March at Chicago’s TBD United Center, home of the Chicago Bulls. But first, coach Tony Bennett’s bunch must win a few games — and we can say the same of Sparty.
As Virginia fans, we know that scoring March W’s is no easy task, and in this season of parity, every team seems to have a chance. Aside from Virginia and MSU, the Midwest features Utah, Purdue — both top-15 teams in the latest AP poll — and Iowa State, whose star forward Georges Niang racked up a combined 53 points in a recent loss to Oklahoma and win against Kansas.
That’s not to mention Big East tourney champ Seton Hall, which toppled Xavier and Villanova last Friday and Saturday night, respectively. Or Butler, the last team to defeat the Pirates.
Virginia and coach Tom Izzo’s group, in short, haven’t punched their tickets to the Elite Eight just yet. But I’ve got to say, I’ll be disappointed if the Cavaliers don’t take another swing at Sparty.
Let’s take a closer look at Virginia’s possible March Madness path.
Four days after enduring a late-game letdown against North Carolina — the No. 1 seed in the East — our Cavaliers draw Hampton at PNC Arena in Raleigh, N.C. The MEAC champion Pirates fell by 35-plus points against SMU and Colorado — both tournament-caliber teams — in December road affairs, but they have surpassed 80 points in three consecutive games.
I don’t think they’ll make it four.
A win earns Virginia a date with the Texas Tech-Butler winner. The Big 12’s Raiders surged in mid-February, when they posted five consecutive wins — downing Iowa State, Baylor and Oklahoma — but have wobbled as of late. Butler, meanwhile, boasts Roosevelt Jones, who’s averaging 14 points, 6.6 boards and 4.7 assists and picked up All-Big East Second Team honors earlier this month.
Butler topped Purdue in December, but the Bulldogs finished a combined 0-7 against Big East heavyweights Villanova, Xavier and Providence. I don’t see Butler or Texas Tech taking down a team led by Brogdon, Anthony Gill and London Perrantes.
Our Cavaliers have never advanced beyond the Sweet 16 under Bennett, and both Purdue and Iowa State present real challenges. Let’s be honest — a game against the Cyclones could be very fun to watch. Iowa State scores 81.8 points per game — 15th best in college hoops — and plays with pace. I’d love to see Virginia slow them down.
The Boilermakers, meanwhile, clean the glass better than anyone except for Michigan State, who edged coach Matt Painter’s team by four in Sunday’s Big Ten title game, came in ranked No. 2 in the AP poll and somehow whiffed on a No. 1 seed.
A.J. Hammons put up 14.9 points, eight rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game for Purdue this season and even made six of his 11 three-points attempts. If the Cavaliers meet the Boilermakers with an Elite Eight berth on the line, can Gill — or Virginia’s own seven-footer, Mike Tobey — make Hammons uncomfortable?
The Spartans stack up favorably against just about anyone, but they’re in line to face talented teams as well. I’m particularly interested in the Seton Hall-Gonzaga matchup, because Hall is hot and the Bulldogs have Kyle Wiltjer, whom media outlets pegged as a National Player of the Year candidate in the preseason. The Zags also trot out 6-foot-11 Domantas Sabonis and Eric McClellan, the WCC Defensive Player of the Year.
Still, it’s hard to forget Utah, who had won nine consecutive games before Saturday’s 31-point loss against Oregon in the Pac-12 championship. The Utes lost eight games this year — three against the Ducks. Austrian big guy Jakob Poeltl paces his team in both scoring and rebounding — and he’s an ambassador for hoops.
All that said, if I’ve got to make picks right now — which we all do, right? — I’m taking Virginia and Michigan State. This is the matchup of destiny, and who doesn’t want to watch Brogdon face off against Valentine, the country’s biggest triple-double threat?
Between Sparty and the Cavs, who’ll win the Midwest? I’m taking Virginia. And if you want analysis, I apologize. It’s what I’m feeling in my heart.