New York, NY (SportsNetwork.com) - The Sweet 16 of the 2014 NCAA Tournament will come to a close on Friday night when the top-seeded Virginia Cavaliers take on the fourth-seeded Michigan State Spartans at Madison Square Garden.
This should mark the first real challenge for Virginia, the East Region's top seed. Thus far the Cavaliers have faced very little resistance with double- digit victories over 16th-seed Coastal Carolina (70-59) and eighth-seed Memphis (78-60) in their first two tests. Those wins earned them their first Sweet 16 appearance since 1995, when they made it as far as the Elite Eight before falling to Arkansas.
Although they are a fourth seed, the Spartans are considered by many to be the team to beat in this region with the talent and momentum they have on their side. Michigan State routed 13th-seed Delaware 93-78 to start its tournament run before fending off a tough Harvard squad 80-73 last Saturday. Since Virginia's last Sweet 16 showing, the Spartans have made it this far 11 times, including trips in each of the last two seasons.
Michigan State has won the three previous encounters with Virginia, with the most recent triumph coming in a 82-75 decision in 2002. The winner of this matchup will advance to the Elite Eight on Sunday to play either Connecticut or Iowa State.
The Spartans clung to a 60-59 lead with under seven minutes to play against Harvard, but they scored five points in the next minute to create enough separation to hold off the Crimson. Branden Dawson connected on 12-of-15 shots from the field and finished with a game-high 26 points to lead the way.
Dawson (11 ppg, 8.3 rpg) is normally a complementary scorer, although he does so with great efficiency, connecting on 62.1 percent of his shots from the floor. He is one of several contributors on the roster that has been hobbled by injuries this season, but seems to be in top form in the postseason. Adreian Payne (16.6 ppg, 7.3 rpg) scored a career-high 41 points in the second round against Delaware and Gary Harris (16.9 ppg) remains the most versatile and productive scorer on the roster. Keith Appling (11.7 ppg, 4.6 apg) struggled against Harvard, finishing with only two points and three assists, but he cannot be ignored.
Five players scored in double figures, led by 16 points from Joe Harris, in Virginia's dismantling of Memphis. The Cavaliers connected on 55.6 percent of their shots from the floor and owned a 40-28 edge on the glass. They also limited the Tigers to 40.7 percent shooting, including a 3-of-13 showing from 3-point range.
By now it is no secret what Virginia's gameplan is. The Cavaliers are a defense first team that does just enough on offense to win games. They are leading the entire country in scoring defense (55.5 ppg), while ranking among the top 20 teams in the nation in assists allowed (10 apg) and opponent field goal percentage (.386). Their offensive production is less impressive, as the Cavaliers only net 66.4 ppg. Malcolm Brogdon (12.6 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and Harris (11.8 ppg) are the only players on the roster averaging in double figures. Harris has been the better scorer down the stretch, averaging 14.3 ppg over the last six games.