Virginia basketball fans have been waiting almost 20 years for Friday night. And now, the Cavaliers' match-up against Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament's Sweet 16 is just a few hours away.
Tony Bennett's UVa team will be playing for a school-record 31st win this season, and the program's fifth-ever appearance in an NCAA regional championship. The Spartans -- who will take the floor at Madison Square Garden as a slight favorite -- have reached the Elite Eight seven times under coach Tom Izzo, most recently in 2010.
"It's going to be a war off attrition," Bennett said of the match-up with Michigan State. "There's definitely some similarities. Obviously they try to run more; we'll try to opportunistically. But it will be a battle, and who can execute best."
"Just two tough teams," said UVa senior forward Akil Mitchell. "Coach Izzo is a tough coach. He respects his players, but demands a lot of them. They really try to grind you out. They try to beat you in every opportunity they can."
"We have to play our game," said UVa sophomore forward Anthony Gill. "And that's play defense, and play as a unit on offense. That's what we've been doing all year, and I don't think anything's going to change because we're on the bright lights."
"Hopefully it'll be a physical game, it'll be a sound game," said Bennett. "And you're going to have to play that way to beat a Michigan State team, the way they're playing."
After starting the season ranked No. 2 in the country in both major polls, the Spartans rattled off wins in 18 of their first 19 games, and spent three weeks in November on top of those polls.
Injuries derailed Michigan State down the stretch of the regular season. But the Spartans rebounded to win the Big Ten Tournament -- winning by an average of 12 points in each of their three games -- and entered the NCAA Tournament as a popular pick to win the national title.
Earlier this week, Bennett called Michigan State the best team his Cavaliers have faced all season.
"How they played in the Big Ten conference tournament. How they, I don't want to say breezed through it, but how they really at times were dominant. And certainly in the NCAA Tournament," Bennett said. "I mean, that's who they are. That's why, the expectations at the start of the year, where they were projected, has kind of come to fruition in the level of basketball they're playing."
"I think it is the toughest team we've played all year. Coach Bennett has expressed that to us, and we understand that," said Gill. "We understand we'll have to pick our level of play up just a little bit. Not change anything, just pick our level of play up just a little bit."
"They have six or seven guys that can really score," said Mitchell. "They get out in transition, so we'll have to be on our A-Game there. And they attack the glass hard, they defend well."
"We go into it knowing this is another tough challenge, another tough opponent, that if our heads aren't right, we can get beat by 40," said UVa sophomore guard Justin Anderson. "And if we come in collective and we play hard together, we can have a chance to be successful."