East Lansing — Excitement and anticipation flowed through the Breslin Center crowd on Friday night as No. 2 Michigan State opened its season against North Florida.
The Spartans left nothing in doubt, dominating both ends of the floor to beat North Florida 98-66.
With Duke on the radar, the Spartans looked to clean up some mistakes. Turnovers, 21 in total, continued to plague the offense, but the Spartans defense held North Florida in check after coughing the ball up.
The defense started the game with a matchup zone on North Florida’s opening possession in honor of the late Jud Heathcote. Tom Izzo even sported a green sportcoat to pay tribute to Heathcote.
“You might (see the zone again),” Izzo said. “The green jacket is a tribute to him. It was kind of an emotional night for me in a lot of ways. I told him I was going to do that this year two weeks before he died.”
Freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. showed off his shot-blocking prowess as he finished with four blocks to go with his 13 points and 13 rebounds. Miles Bridges added 20 points and 10 rebounds, Cassius Winston scored 12 with eight assists and Nick Ward finished with 16 points.
“I was really impressed by Jaren (Jackson),” Izzo said. “For the most part, he handled the ball screens. He had four blocks but I thought he had about four others that were intimidated. That’s a monumental day.”
Jackson wasn’t worried about personal accolades.
“I thought I played pretty well,” Jackson said. “I just tried to be active. It was good enough for a win so that’s all I really care about.”
Every starter scored in double figures for the Spartans as Josh Langford added 13.
The game didn’t start in Michigan State’s favor. After falling behind 8-3, the defense seemed to buckle down. Michigan State allowed 13 points in the first four minutes and held the Ospreys to 13 points in the final 16 minutes of the first half.
Despite not making a 3-pointer in the first half, Michigan State took a 26-point lead into halftime.
“We don’t want to live or die by the 3,” Miles Bridges said. “Because that’s what we did last year. That’s the last thing we worry about because that’s what we do best.”
Michigan State finished 3-for-12 from long range.
The second half was much more of the same, though North Florida started to make its shots, scoring 10 points in the first four minutes which forced an Izzo timeout. The Ospreys would score 30 points from that point on. Although he admitted there were plenty of mistakes, Izzo was pleased with his team’s defense.
“It seemed like they were stuck on 13 (points),” Izzo said. “Our defense was pretty good. We had our hands up and moved our feet pretty good.”
Michigan State’s depth, size and free-throw shooting were all weaknesses a season ago, but seemed to be strengths against the Ospreys. The Spartans hit 25-of-32 free throws, taking advantage of a plethora of foul calls, and outrebounded North Florida 49-25.
“They’re as fast as any team in America from baseline to baseline,” North Florida coach Matthew Driscoll said. “They are long at all positions. (Jaren) Jackson’s such a puppy, he’s going to learn so much.”
Ivan Gandia-Rosa led North Florida (0-1) with 19 points and Garrett Sams scored 13.
Duke awaits the Spartans in the Champions Classic in Chicago on Tuesday night in a battle between the top two ranked teams in the country.
“(Duke) is not just another game,” Izzo said. “It’s going to be one of the greatest nights of college basketball.”
Connor Muldowney is a freelance writer.