East Lansing — In the past, when Michigan State was preparing to play a team that might be seen as an underdog, Tom Izzo would typically go to one of his old standby catchphrases to describe what the Spartans would be up against.
“It will be Christmas, New Year’s and the Fourth of July,” Izzo has said more than a few times.
As No. 2 Michigan State prepares to face Oakland at 2:30 p.m. on Saturday at Little Caesars Arena, it might have called for the saying to be recycled. However, Izzo wasn’t talking about this game being a big one for just the Golden Grizzlies. He firmly believes it is for the Spartans, too.
“Of course, that’s gonna be big for them,” Izzo said. “But where I’d like to see if our team is maturing, I hope it’s really big for us too because we get a chance to play downtown Detroit, we get a chance to play where (Stan) Van Gundy leads the Pistons, we get a chance to play in a place where if we win enough we could be playing there in March.
“There’s so many good things for us, too. We get to beat a quality team if we win that game. It’s a team I expect in the NCAA Tournament, to put a little pressure on my friend, and I think deservingly so because I think they’ve got a good enough team to get there. So, it’s not just a big win for his program now, it could be a damn good win for our program, too, and I want to see if our team is maturing to the point that we understand that.”
His friend, of course, is Oakland coach Greg Kampe. The two have squared off 15 times and Michigan State has come out on top every time. That doesn’t mean, however, there haven’t been close calls.
Two years ago, the teams faced each other at The Palace with Michigan State ranked No. 1 in the nation. Kay Felder scored 37 as Oakland pushed the Spartans to overtime before Michigan State prevailed, 99-93. Bryn Forbes scored 32 and Eron Harris had 27 as Denzel Valentine sat with a knee injury. There was also a four-point Michigan State win in 2013 and a 77-76 victory in 2010.
Kampe has made no secret of how badly he wants to beat Michigan State, and Izzo obliges by playing the Grizzlies on a regular basis.
“I don’t know why in the hell I keep doing it,” Izzo said. “But I do because I have great respect for him and his program.”
The latest edition of the in-state battle will be the second game of a doubleheader. Michigan takes on Detroit Mercy at noon with the MSU-Oakland game to follow. It also happens to precede the Lions taking on the Bears at 4:30 p.m. at Ford Field.
“Just a great sports day for the city of Detroit,” Izzo said. “We’ve got a lot of good things going down, so am I excited to be there? I’m ecstatic to be there. I think it’s going to be great for all of us.
“Unfortunately, I think we’re playing a very, very, very good team and one that is just — it’s hard to look at a lot of film when they didn’t have two of their guys because they’re a completely different team. You have three guys averaging almost 20 points a game. There’s not many people in college basketball that have that right now.”
Senior transfer Kendrick Nunn, the former Illinois guard, is leading Oakland (6-4) at 21.7 points a game but has missed three games while senior guard Martez Walker is averaging 21.2. Senior forward Jalen Hayes is scoring 19.3 in six games after sitting out four games because of an NCAA suspension.
The Grizzlies will also be without guards James Beck and Jaevin Cumberland. Beck will miss 6-8 weeks with a stress fracture in his leg while Cumberland was lost for the season to an ankle injury. Beck started six games and averaged 5.8 points in more than 20 minutes a game.
But Izzo has been hammering home to his team that Oakland is not a team to take lightly.
“It’s just a big game,” sophomore guard Cassius Winston said. “The arena, the team, the setting. Every time we play them it’s a big game, it’s a battle. That’s how we approach it.”
That’s life as the No. 2 team in the nation. Every team brings their best shot, but it’s something the Spartans have grown accustomed to already this season, getting pushed the last two games against Rutgers and Southern Utah.
They expect no less from the Grizzlies.
“We have a bullseye on our back,” sophomore Miles Bridges said. “That comes with our ranking, so we understand that.”
Oakland vs. No. 2 Michigan State
Tip-off: 2:30 p.m. Saturday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit
TV/radio: ESPNU/WJR 760, WDFN 1130
Records: Oakland 6-4; Michigan State 9-1
Notable: Michigan State leads the series, 15-0. … Three out of five Horizon League Players of the Week have been from Oakland this season (Kendrick Nunn, Martez Walker, Jalen Hayes). … Hayes has recorded a league-leading five straight double-doubles and now has 31 for his career, which is third all-time in program history. ... Michigan plays Detroit Mercy in the first game of the doubleheader at noon.