December 2, 2020

Independent analysis and commentary on UVA athletics

Demons from Sparta



Michigan State.

Say the words to Tony Bennett or a Virginia fan of Tony’s generation or older, and you can expect to see a visceral reaction cross their face. Only bad memories come from playing Michigan State for each, going back to the same era, although the origin stories diverge.

Michigan State has always stood in Bennett’s way.

Virginia has never beaten Michigan State. We had them. Once. The only game that ended with Virginia ahead of Michigan State didn’t count and won’t appear in any record books.

On December 9, the Michigan State Spartans will (hopefully) come to the John Paul Jones Arena in Charlottesville, led by legendary coach Tom Izzo (hopefully) in what will be the sixth – or fourth depending on who you believe – meeting between the two schools. This will be the Spartans’ first invasion of Charlottesville. They have been to Virginia once before.

It was on November 27, 2001. Michigan State was the reigning national champions and currently ranked #22 in the nation. Virginia was #9. Expectations were high in Wahoo Nation, as the previous year’s team had risen as high as #6 in the AP Poll and beaten both Duke and UNC. They had made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1997 (losing to then-Cinderella Gonzaga in the first round in a performance that felt scripted), hauled in a good recruiting class and come into the season #11. Three wins over patsies let them rise to #9.

Michigan State had lost a lot from that national champion, but still came in with #22 ranking. It was the third ACC-Big Ten Challenge, and the first time in recorded history the two schools had met on a basketball floor. For some reason, the game was held at the Richmond Coliseum. My memories of that time are dim, but I know I was flabbergasted and annoyed. We wanted them at home, where Pete’s program had revived the raucous spirit of The House That Ralph Built – and the Coliseum was a dump and who wanted to go to Richmond?

I’m not sure whether it was in warmups or when the game itself started that we first saw something was wrong. Players were slipping and falling all over the court. They looked like a bunch of kids trying to run on ice in sneakers.

“It was Bambi on ice,” was Gillen’s famous line after the game.

The Coliseum was the home rink of a minor league hockey team, and the basketball floor had been put down on top of the ice. Virginia’s notoriously fickle climate decided to serve up a gorgeous late spring day with temperatures in the 70s. It was still 70 when the game started at 7:30. Despite AC, it was hot in the arena.

The ice started to melt.

The water seeped through the floor.

We later read that the teams had trouble during their shootarounds in the morning, with neither team able to move well. Izzo told a TV crew hours before the game that he didn’t think it would be played. It probably should not have been.

But it was, and Virginia took an early lead. Apparently as the game progressed, one end of the floor was worse than the other. Virginia was attacking the worse end, and their offense suffered. “Roger Mason told me, `Coach, I can’t cut, I can’t move,'” Gillen told the Richmond Times-Dispatch after the game. Michigan State took advantage for a 19-4 run to close the first half with a 24-19 lead. If that score sounds reasonable to you, that’s because of 10 years of Tony Bennett basketball. This was the Pete Gillen Hoos. They routinely scored 19 points in 8 minutes. And routinely gave up 24 points in 10 minutes.

The referees told the coaches at halftime that the game might be called. Nobody wanted it called, but nobody wanted to get hurt, either.

The second half started, and the Cavaliers were now attacking the better end. They were able to get the ball inside to Travis Watson, who scored four buckets in a 10-0 run that gave the Cavaliers a 31-28 lead. We had them. We were taking control of the game. We were going to beat the defending national champions.

Then Watson got the ball, tried to drive, and landed hard on his hip and face. That was it for the referees. They called the game with 15 minutes to play. “It was amazing somebody didn’t seriously hurt,” Cavaliers coach Pete Gillen said. “We probably went too far, in all candor, but we wanted to play the game.”

The fans left the arena angry that the game had been scheduled in the Coliseum to begin with. We hated to see it called, but it was obviously unsafe and nobody wanted a player to get hurt. I agreed with the coaches and players: it was the right decision.

ESPN and the leagues decided to capitalize on the easy storyline the next year and pitted the two programs against each other again. In East Lansing, Michigan. At the Breslin Center.


By then, the two programs were headed in opposite directions. After the Hoos had ridden a weak non-conference slate to a #4 ranking on New Year’s Day, ACC reality hit. Two straight losses to start the season were a punch in the nose. First ever win in the Dean Dome was a great moment, especially for those of us fortunate enough to be there, but then the wheels came off and the Hoos lost 10 of their last 13 games, including a first round NIT game in U Hall. The Spartans handled the Cavaliers with ease, winning 82-75 in a game that wasn’t close.

Meanwhile, Tony Bennett had his own Michigan State frustrations. His father Dick Bennett was the head coach at Wisconsin, where his system of the Packline Defense and Blocker-Mover Offense had brought success.

But not against Michigan State. The year before Bambi-on-Ice, when Michigan State won the National Championship, it was Wisconsin that they had beaten in the Final Four to get there. They had beaten Wisconsin four times that year. Dick Bennett would lose his last eight games against Michigan State. Most teams got frustrated and eventually broke down against Bennett’s style. Not Michigan State. They were one blue blood who loved a good back alley fight.

Tony went to Washington State and the scheduling gods left Virginia and Michigan State alone. We all went on with our lives. Virginia Basketball sank. Tony Bennett thrived. Wally Walker made his greatest contribution to Virginia Basketball when Craig Littlepage was looking for a successor to fired Dave Leitao and Walker said, “Hey, what about Tony Bennett?”

Fate brought Tony Bennett to Virginia so he could rebuild the Cavaliers, get into the NCAA Tournament, and run into Michigan State again.

At the start of the 2013-14 season, Michigan State was supposed to be the 1-seed and Virginia a 6-seed. The Spartans were #2 pre-season then knocked off #1 Kentucky in the season’s first week to ascend to the top spot. They stayed there for three weeks until a loss to North Carolina dropped them to fifth. They remained in the top 5 for seven weeks, ploughing through the Big Ten, until injuries mounted. Adreian Payne, Branden Dawson and Keith Appling – three of MSU’s four best players – went out with injuries in a short period of time, and the Spartans slid, losing seven of their last twelve regular season games and dropping to #22 in the AP poll.

Meanwhile, Virginia started the season ranked #24 based on Joe Harris’s strong play the year before, the return of Malcolm Brogdon, and the presence of respected transfer Anthony Gill and former top-50 recruit Justin Anderson. But they didn’t stick, thanks to an early season loss to #14 VCU. They looked like a team in disarray in December, scoring just 38 points in a dreadful loss to Wisconsin, then getting beat at Green Bay and drubbed at Tennessee in the final non-conference game and the last game of 2013.

Then Joe Harris drove his Red Truck to Tony Bennett’s house for a New Year’s Eve meeting, and the ACC season came along. The Cavaliers grabbed it like a lifeline, starting out with solid wins over Florida State and Wake Forest, and an encouraging loss in Cameron. With the offense running “on rails” and the defense as impenetrable as ever, the Hoos stormed through the ACC like a Category 5, winning 13 straight games and clinching the #1 seed in the ACC Tournament. They re-entered the AP poll at #20 on February 3 and ended the regular season at #6.

Virginia completed the magical ACC season with the program’s first ACC Tournament win since 1976, beating Duke in the final. The double ACC Championship earned them a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and everyone pegged them as a Final Four team.

The Spartans, meanwhile, miraculously became fully healthy just in time for the Big Ten Tournament, and played like the #1 team they had been, smashing Northwestern, #12 Wisconsin and #8 Michigan by an average margin of 13 points. When the NCAA Tournament brackets were revealed and they were a #4 seed, EVERYBODY circled them as a likely Final Four crasher. Most brackets had them representing the East Region in the Final Four.

Virginia, of course, was the #1 seed in the East. The Virginia-Michigan State game in Madison Square Garden was a Final Four game in the Sweet Sixteen. Two Final Four teams staged a Final Four battle in the Sweet Sixteen – leaving the victorious Spartans unprepared to come back two days later and deal with UConn, the eventual national champion.

As in most games of that type, the fans of the losing team could point to numerous moments that could have swung the game – including an egregious non-call by the referees when Teven Was Fouled. But the better team did win. Michigan State was, when healthy, the best team in college basketball that season. They beat #1 Kentucky when healthy, won 18 of 19 games when healthy, then stampeded the Big Ten when healthy. Yes, it was a little bitter being “upset” by a team that everybody knew was better than its seeding, but that stuff happens. We got over it and we enjoyed the season and knowing that Virginia was back to being a Final Four program. We didn’t really think much about Michigan State.

Then the 2015 NCAA Tournament Bracket was announced and we all said, “Really? Again?” A Michigan State team two full seed lines below where they belonged was smack in Virginia’s path. The Spartans weren’t as good as they had been the year before, but they still finished tied for third in the Big Ten, made it to the Big Ten Championship Game, were ranked #23 in the final AP poll, and were 19th in the increasingly relevant Kenpom ranking. A solid top 20 team, they were seeded 7th in the tournament, running into #2 seed Virginia in the second round.

Travis Trice came out of the locker room like a greyhound chasing a rabbit, dashing to 15 quick points and shooting the Spartans to an early lead they would never relinquish. That’s all I really remember about the game: Travis Trice going all Mamba Mentality on us, the Hoos not being able to hit a damn thing, and every time we got the margin down to 6 or 8, they hit a couple buckets.

For the second year in a row, an underseeded Michigan State team knocked Virginia out of the tournament then bowed out to the eventual champion. This time it was to Duke in the National Semifinal. Those two “upsets” to Michigan State teams that very likely were the better team – Virginia was not a two-seed level team at that point with Justin Anderson’s injury – went a long way toward weaving the “Tony Bennett can’t win in the tournament and his system doesn’t work in the tournament” mantle that the ignoscenti draped around his shoulders until Minneapolis.

Tom Izzo has been a nemesis to Tony Bennett, standing in the way of his father at Wisconsin and then two of his own best teams. But that is all past now. The two men stand as coaching equals, and it is Bennett who will come into this game as the reigning National Champion. The Hoos enter the season with the higher ranking, the loftier expectations. All of that will go out the window once the referee throws the ball up in the air and the alley fight begins.

Don’t worry, there’s no ice under the floor at the JPJ.