Grand Rapids — This wasn’t your typical exhibition game.
In most seasons, Michigan State will play a couple of games against Division II teams to tune up for the season. On Sunday afternoon, that approach got thrown for a loop as the Spartans hosted Georgia in an exhibition game to help raise money for
recent hurricanes victims.
It was both teams taking advantage of an NCAA waiver that allowed schools to add a game in an effort to raise money. Michigan State and Georgia did just that as Spartans coach Tom Izzo and Bulldogs coach Mark Fox presented
a check for more than $339,000
to the American Red Cross before the game.
That was what the goal was, and everyone on hand at a sold-out Van Andel Arena on Sunday was clear on that.
“When you do something for a cause greater than yourself you need help to really make an impact and this couldn’t have happened without Michigan State University and the great support that their fan-base and the city of Grand Rapids provided,” Fox said. “I thank you from the bottom of our hearts from the Deep South.”
The Bulldogs’ campus in Athens, Ga., was affected by the storms, which is one of the reasons the game was played in Michigan. And while the benefit in dollars will go a long way, the benefit on the court for both teams would be hard to ignore, as well.
Michigan State, ranked No. 2 in the preseason coaches’ poll, wasn’t feeling great about the way it played last week against Ferris State. Sunday’s meeting with a team from the SEC that expects to be an NCAA Tournament team brought a more focused effort.
The Spartans closed the first half strong and pulled away in the second half to beat the Bulldogs, 80-68, in front of the partisan crowd. It wasn’t easy, though, as Georgia didn’t go away quietly. After Michigan State pushed the lead to 71-53, the Bulldogs cut the margin to single digits in the final two minutes but the Spartan held off the final surge.
“I’d say that for 15 minutes in the first half we played pretty good, they just played as good or better,” Izzo said. “In the second half, I thought for 15 minutes we played really good, and the last five I thought we were really poor. Which means that I have a way to earn my money this week and start getting after some guys.”
One probably won’t be Miles Bridges, who missed his first six shots but attacked the basket and finished with 21 points on 6-for-14 shooting while grabbing 10 rebounds. Nick Ward scored 13 and Joshua Langford added 11 points for Michigan State, which will finish exhibition play on Friday at home against Hillsdale.
“Well Miles is, he’s awesome,” Fox said. “He can physically dominate every possession. He was their number one 3-point shooter in makes last year and he’s great at balancing the ball and attacking the basket. I think he’s terrific and hopefully he’ll have a great year.”
If Sunday was any indication, Bridges and Michigan State are worthy of the preseason praise and getting the chance to play a team at Georgia’s level before diving into the meat to the non
conference schedule — the Spartans face Duke in potential 1 vs. 2 matchup in the Champions Classic on Nov. 14 in Chicago — will go a long way.
“They had a huge inside presence, so that was good to play a team like that,” Cassius Winston said. “That’s a talented team and we feel like they’re gonna be a good team in their conference and they’re gonna win a lot of games. So to be able to play them in an exhibition is huge.”
The presence was highlighted by senior Yante Maten, who scored 33 for the Bulldogs. Maten starred at both Bloomfield Hills Lahser and Bloomfield Hills High.
“I should be fired for letting him get out of the state,” Izzo joked.
But Izzo’s group is still pretty good, and pretty deep. The win over Georgia showed that, and though the Spartans didn’t love the way they played last week against Ferris State, they built some confidence heading into Friday’s final exhibition against Hillsdale.
And if nothing else, Michigan State locked up at least one first-place vote.
“I vote in the coaches poll and I voted Michigan State No. 1, so that’s how good I think they are,” Fox said. “The next time we have to cast a vote they’ll still be at the top. I think they’re an elite-level team, they are very complete. They have depth and quality in the backcourt; they have very good perimeter shooting and obviously great wing-play. Then they have so many long and big bodies up front who can score. They’re as complete of a team as I’ve seen in college basketball in quite some time.”