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A guide to NCAA tournament Sweet 16 action Friday

Virginihead coach Tony Bennett talks with his team during practice NCAA college basketball tournament Thursday March 27 2014 New York.

Virginia head coach Tony Bennett talks with his team during practice at the NCAA college basketball tournament Thursday, March 27, 2014 in New York. Virginia will play Michigan State in a regional semifinal on Friday. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

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Defending the Spartans

Everybody’s digging Michigan State these days, you know?

“This is, in some people’s minds, the best team in the country,” Tom Izzo said Thursday.

But Izzo wasn’t talking about MSU. Rather, he was referring to the East’s No. 1 seed, Virginia.

Let’s not kid ourselves — it was a phony-baloney tip of the Spartan helmet. Given their seed, the Cavaliers entered the tourney as long shots and certainly, with the fourth-seeded Spartans clearly peaking, remain so. Despite the fact Virginia has won 18 of its last 19 games, losing only at Maryland in overtime, MSU is the favorite in this game.

Virginia coach Tony Bennett probably wouldn’t know what to do with a roster as talent-laden as Izzo’s. What Bennett does have is the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense (55.5 points per game).

“Are we equipped to play against them well? I think when we’re playing at our best, our style gives us a chance to beat the best,” Bennett said.

“We always talk about that. That’s how you prepare your team, so when you play against high-high-level opponents, does your system, does your style give you that chance? That’s what we have tried to build and build, and we’ll get our chance tomorrow.”

Scared? Not Michigan

Tennessee has won three games in this tournament, having started its road in Dayton, and it seems the Vols have convinced the masses that they’re a legit threat to keep rolling all the way to the Final Four in Arlington, Texas.

It’s true the Vols, seeded 11th in the Midwest, will be a handful inside for perimeter-oriented No. 2 seed Michigan. No doubt, Jarnell Stokes’ tourney averages of 20.3 points and 15 rebounds demand attention and respect.

But come on, Tennessee? Really?

Wolverines big man Jordan Morgan, who put up double-doubles against both Wofford and Texas, doubts the Vols have anything the Big Ten regular-season champs haven’t seen before.

“I think they are a pretty good comparison to what we would see in the Big Ten, with their physicality in the paint and, on top of that, they’ve got really good scorers on the perimeter,” Morgan said. “That’s pretty much what we see in the Big Ten.”

In the Sweet 16, Pitino doesn’t lose

John Calipari is 5-1 against mega-rival Louisville since taking over at Kentucky. Not bad at all, eh?

Four of those five victories took place in December. Because this is March, we’re far more impressed with Cardinals coach Rick Pitino’s career mark in Sweet 16 games of — are you ready for this? — 11-0.

Doesn’t mean the defending national champs are an easy pick in this matchup, though. Something to remember: UK freshman Julius Randle scored 17 points in the first half of the teams’ December meeting in Lexington. Randle then had to sit out most of the second half due to leg cramps, but the Wildcats won anyway.

Who’s your daddy?

With all due respect to the consensus national player of the year, Connecticut guard Shabazz Napier may have been the best senior in the tourney even before Doug McDermott and Creighton were knocked out. Napier’s 49 points in two games only scratches the surface of how well he’s playing.

Iowa State’s DeAndre “Big Daddy” Kane, also a senior guard, isn’t about to back down to the challenge of opposing Napier. Kane’s tourney averages — 19 points, 8½ rebounds and six assists — are crazy-good. And the Cyclones are just crazy enough to believe they can overcome Napier, a season-ending injury to frontcourt star Georges Niang or anything else.

Coaching buddies

Who can forget the magic Fred Hoiberg and Kevin Ollie made as Bulls teammates during the 2001-02 season? They combined for, oh, about 10 points per game in a 21-win campaign. OK, so it wasn’t exactly magical.

But one of the truly good things about their only season as teammates is that Hoiberg and Ollie — now the coaches at Iowa State and UConn — forged a lasting friendship. Several years later, when Hoiberg was running the Timberwolves, he signed Ollie during the twilight of his playing career. The friendship deepened.

“He was just one of the greatest teammates I’ve ever been around,” Ollie said. “Personable. Would do anything for his teammates. … He has just been a great friend of mine.”


Twitter: @slgreenberg

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