Michigan State was dubbed one of the NCAA tournament favorites before the Big Dance even started.
And now the Spartans will have to prove why.
With no disrespect to Delaware and Harvard, things get real for Sparty on Friday night when the Sweet Sixteen opponent is one-seed Virginia, the champions of the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Cavaliers are good, the reason why they were awarded one of four No. 1 seeds in this year’s tournament. But there has to be quite the chip on the shoulder when the favorite to emerge from your region is the four seed.
“I think we have got a very good team we have to play,” Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo said in a Thursday press conference. “When you win 18 out of 19 games in the ACC, when you beat the likes of Duke and Syracuse the way they did and a lot of other teams, there's no question there's no fluke. This is, in some people's minds, the best team in the country. And I think it's a team that doesn't beat themselves.”
But, of course, Izzo, who has said he has a team he thinks can win it all, knows that Michigan State is pretty good, too.
“At the same time, we have got our sea legs under us a little bit,” he said. “I thought the last seven games we have made some progress. The last five games we have made a lot of progress with our defense, our rebounding, our consistency. I think getting guys back together and everybody seems to be in maybe back to normal form.”
The reason Michigan State was such a pre-tournament favorite — and remains a favorite — is because that four-seed in front of its name isn’t indicative of what could be. The oft-discussed rash of injuries during the season caused the Spartans to hit a few bumps in the road. Without them, it could be a No. 1 seed.
“It was definitely frustrating in the beginning of the middle of the season,” Michigan State forward Branden Dawson said. “I think we were dealing with a lot of adversity and injuries. But now we have all our key players back, we are looking better as a team and our chemistry is great, and I think our rhythm is great, and we're just happy to be on the floor with each other.”
And it’s simply being on the floor together that has the Spartans flying high. After getting back to full strength, a string of dominating performances won them a Big Ten Tournament title, and it’s carried over in the first two games of the Big Dance. Big Ten powers Wisconsin and Michigan fell in the wake of the fully healthy Spartans. Why should ACC power Virginia be any different?
“I know which Michigan State team we're going to play and that's the important thing,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said. “How they played in the Big Ten Conference Tournament, how they — I don't want to say breezed through it — but how they really were at times dominant and certainly in the NCAA tournament. That's who they are. That's the expectations at the start of the year where they were projected has kind of come to fruition. The level of basketball they're playing is showing. That's who we're preparing for. You watch those other games to see if there's some consistencies, but there is their full roster and certainly they're playing at a high level.”
If the real Michigan State is back, if the Spartans are truly one of the nation’s best teams, if Izzo is going to reach another Final Four, the hard part starts Friday. Now it’s time to prove it.