Strong programs square off in East Regional at MSG

March Madness arrives at the “new” — relatively speaking — Madison Square Garden for the first time. The biggest event of the college basketball season hasn’t been staged in Manhattan in 53 years, but fortunately the weekend’s East Regional semifinals and final figure to feature some top-notch action.

Here’s a preview of the Friday’s semifinal matchups featuring Virginia, Iowa State, Michigan State and Connecticut, as well as amNewYork’s pick to advance to the Final Four in North Texas with a victory on Sunday.

No. 1 Virginia vs.

No. 4 Michigan StateThe Cavaliers (30-6) won the ACC regular-season and tournament titles, yet they are viewed as the Vegas underdog to the lower-seeded Spartans (28-8). Part of that has to do with Michigan State’s reputation and sustained success in the NCAA Tournament. The other part has to do with the level of perceived talent on the Spartans’ roster. Gary Harris and Adreian Payne could be NBA first-round picks in June. What figures to keep Virginia in this one is an elite defense that held Duke, Syracuse and Wisconsin in check earlier this season. However, the Big Ten Tournament champs should advance.

No. 3 Iowa State vs.

No. 7 ConnecticutDeAndre Kane’s super showing in the tournament has overshadowed talented teammate Melvin Ejim, the Cyclones’ (28-7) leading scorer during the season. That one-two punch powered Iowa State to the Big 12 Tournament crown, and could get them through to Sunday’s regional final. But don’t expect the Huskies to roll over and play dead. Shabazz Napier and his UConn (28-8) teammates emphatically took down No. 2 seed Villanova last weekend and are capable of pulling off another upset. They won’t, though, as the high-scoring, battle-tested Cyclones look set to move on and play again on Sunday.

East Regional Final

The projected Spartans-Cyclones matchup should be a thriller. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has been here before, unlike his counterpart, Fred Hoiberg. Coaching isn’t everything, but a talented, well-coached group makes for a tough out in the Big Dance. Expect points aplenty as the Spartans cut down the nets at the Garden.