Early in the season, Michigan State shows it can play with some of the nation’s elite

East Lansing – Playing a non-conference schedule as difficult as Michigan State’s involves risks.

Losing games can get contagious at times, and the early slate was and remains a challenge. Start sliding in the wrong direction and it can send a team into a spiral it’s hard to get out of.

However, when you win a few – especially early in the stretch – it starts to look not nearly as terrifying. And, as the Spartans have done with victories over Kentucky and Villanova – and even in the one point loss to Gonzaga – a certain confidence is beginning to emerge.

For Michigan State, a battle-tested team is taking shape as the No. 12 Spartans begin play Thursday in Portland’s Phil Knight Invitational against No. 18 Alabama.

“Actually, we kind of expected that,” said senior Joey Hauser, who scored 23 in the win over Kentucky and 13 against Villanova. “That’s why we play a schedule like this – to play these tough games. And play in close games, get big shots and those things are going to help us all along. So the great thing is that we can move forward with it.”

Michigan State (3-1) is sure to have its fair share of tough games over four days in Portland.

The Alabama matchup, which begins at 10:30 p.m. on Thanksgiving, is another unique matchup. Unlike the teams the Spartans have faced thus far, Alabama is all about frantic pace, using his height and athleticism to make shots as fast as possible – primarily from 3-point range or near the basket – long-range two-pointers almost banned from the game plan.

In fact, the Crimson Tide (4-0) grabbed 46 3-pointers in Friday’s win over Jacksonville State and is led by dynamic six-foot freshman Brandon Miller, who averages 20.3 points and 9.3 rebounds and 51 .7 shoots. % of 3-point range.

“The Miller boy is everyone’s number 2 or 3 pick in the (NBA) draft,” Izzo said. “Tall, athletic, can shoot threes. Some people compare him to Kevin Durant.”

However, Alabama is not a one-man team. Guard Mark Sears, a former Ohio transfer, averages 15.3 points and 5.5 rebounds while playing 29 minutes per game. He also shoots better than 40% from 3-point range, and freshman Rylan Griffen averages 10.3 points and 5.3 rebounds off the bench.

Senior point guard Jahvon Quinerly has played the last two games, working his way back after tearing his cruciate ligament during last season’s NCAA Tournament. The former McDonald’s All-America, who came over from Villanova two years ago, could face long minutes against the Spartans.

“They thought he wouldn’t be back until mid-December and he’s already played two games,” said Izzo. “He really makes a difference. He’s a point guard who leads their team. He’s a really good quarterback.”

What Michigan State will rely on is a defense that came in after two subpar seasons. When last year was over, the Spartans were 67e in the country in defensive efficiency. They are 23 after four games this seasoneda place where they feel more comfortable.

“I think our versatility just gives us the ability to guard a lot of different people,” senior forward Malik Hall said. “I think everyone has improved a little bit, and defending is something we always focus on, so I think we just took a little more to heart this year. It’s something that our team – not even just the coaching staff, but our team, the players – has focused more on.”

However, the players are taking charge of the staff, one that looks different this season with Dwayne Stephens leaving to become head coach at Western Michigan and Mike Garland retiring. Thomas Kelly rounded out the current staff, which included Mark Montgomery and Doug Wojcik, and Izzo regularly praised their work and the players’ willingness to follow the game plan every game.

“I have to give a lot of credit to my staff, when you have so many preparations that are completely different,” said Izzo. “It takes a lot of work and they have to get it to the point where we can present it without heads spinning because there are so many different things. … I think my staff has done a fantastic job during this difficult period we are having.

“It’s going to be very demanding from my staff and a lot of our players, and yet, what an exciting time for us, because we’ve put ourselves in a position where we feel like we can play with a lot of people, and still understand that we having warts and things we are not good at.”

The trip to Portland is not a one-off. This is a tournament – three games in four days – and that means the Spartans will try to win, just like they did five years ago when they won their series in the PK80 and beat North Carolina in the championship.

The top-ranked Tar Heels are back in their midst, but UConn or Oregon would be next on Friday, before a potential rematch with North Carolina.

But with the games they’ve already played and the way they defend, the Spartans are confident they can play with any team they match.

“We can compete with some of the best teams,” said Hauser. “We lost to Gonzaga, No. 2 in the country, by possession, beat Kentucky and a really well-coached Villanova team. So I think we just have more confidence.”

No. 12 Michigan State vs. No. 18 Alabama

tip: 10:30 p.m. Thursday, Moda Center, Portland, Oregon

Television/Radio: ESPN/WJR 760

Registrations: State of Michigan 3-1, Alabama 4-0

Outlook: Michigan State won its award at the PK80 Invitational in 2017. The Spartans defeated DePaul, UConn and North Carolina as Cassius Winston was named tournament MVP. Alabama coach Nate Oats coached Romulus High School for 11 seasons and led the Eagles to a state championship in 2013.

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Twitter: @mattcharboneau

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