Spartans step up D, getting back to identity

With Virginia's touted defense talked about, Michigan State takes the challenge to heart and buckle down on defense. Tom Izzo says they are getting back to who they are in the past six games.

The talk leading up to Friday night's Sweet 16 clash between Virginia and Michigan State centered on an elite Cavaliers defense.

It made sense as the Hoos allow an average of just 55 points per game, but the Spartans took exception to the talk.

"For everybody to start talking about their defense, what about our defense?" sophomore Denzel Valentine said. "We wanted to come out and prove we have a good defense, too."

They did just that, holding Virginia to 35.1 percent shooting and winning 61-59 to advance to the Elite 8 on Sunday against Connecticut.

The performance added to a stretch that coach Tom Izzo said has spanned six games with "phenomenal" defense. In other words, since the postseason began, the Spartans coach is pleased with the defense his team is playing.

"That's getting back to who we are and I thought that was important," he said. "We kind of lost that during the year."

The hype around Virginia's defense – which was warranted by all accounts in the Spartans' locker room – and the lack of talk about Michigan State was something that Valentine said irked Izzo.

After the game, Valentine said he agreed with Izzo on this Spartans' team getting back to its identity and that starts with the way defense is played.

"Just being tough and playing lockdown defense, that's what Michigan State is about," he said. "I think we're getting back to that a little bit."

Virginia guard Malcolm Brogdon said it was evident the Spartans brought a physical defense to the table that compares to the Cavaliers.

"They just made everything tough on you," he said. "They make you earn every basket and I just thought they did a good job being in gaps, helping one another.

"It seems like they did a good job of just flooding."

The motivation to step it up even more against Virginia came from a variety of reasons.

Senior Keith Appling said it came from knowing the game would be low scoring and stops would be essential for the Spartans to advance.

Junior Travis Trice pointed to the chip on the shoulder from thinking they should be mentioned with Virginia as a strong defense.

"We felt like our defense is just as good, if not better," he said. "That only adds fuel to the fire and makes the win that much bigger for us."

The win might have come down to defense, as the Spartans couldn't muster a lot of offense at various points in the game.

But if it will be a seventh straight game with great defense, the Spartans still have work to do, said senior Adreian Payne.

"I think we played great defense, but I know that we can get better," he said. "We definitely had some mistakes and they capitalized on when w made mistakes. That's something that we can watch this film and get better from.

"We're just trying to continue to get better from there."