Michigan State assumes underdog role again against Duke
East Lansing — A year ago, many wondered if the Champions Classic was shaping up to be a preview to the Final Four.
Kentucky, Duke and Kansas might well be in that category again this season, but many of the same people that thought last year's field was loaded are wondering this season about Michigan State.
At No. 19 in the country, the Spartans are the odd man out, not something they've been used to under coach Tom Izzo, who is in his 20th season.
But, as Izzo pointed out on Monday, it's not exactly new territory for Michigan State.
"I've been an underdog so many times in my career that it doesn't faze me," Izzo said.
He and the Spartans (1-0) will be again Tuesday night when they square off with No. 4 Duke at 7 p.m. at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis. The second game pits No. 1 Kentucky against No. 5 Kansas.
But they've been in this spot before, and in this very event.
In the inaugural Champions Classic in 2011, Michigan State was unranked when it played No. 6 Duke at Madison Square Garden. The Spartans lost that night, 74-69, but showed glimpses of the team that would eventually win the Big Ten title and the conference tournament championship before earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The next year in Atlanta, Michigan State was No. 21 and knocked off No. 7 Kansas.
"We had gotten upset by UConn (a few days earlier) and we were a top-20 something team and they were a top-10 team," Izzo said. "We went in there and played our tails off."
He's hoping for the same thing this time around after a sloppy start to the season on Friday at Navy.
And while Tuesday night's game won't draw the same attention as last season when No. 2 Michigan State defeated No. 1 Kentucky, it is just as important for the Spartans.
"I'm just looking forward to this challenge, I really am," Izzo said. I'm looking forward to seeing where my team is. I didn't really have a good feel going into the Navy game where we were. I really don't have a good feel coming out of it because you lose a guy two-and-a-half minutes into the game now you're going to play a guy you weren't going to play as much because of his hand at the time. Everything kinda changed.
"Was I pleased with it? No, I was really disappointed. Do I think there's a carryover? Not even close. That's not the way we practiced all spring, summer and fall."
The player lost was guard Alvin Ellis, who injured his right ankle early against Navy and is unlikely to play Tuesday night. His backup, junior transfer Bryn Forbes, has an injured left hand that was expected keep his minutes down.
But with Ellis out, Forbes will be counted on more, as will freshman guard Lourawls "Tum" Nairn.
He'll play more point while senior Travis Trice spends more time at shooting guard. It's a problem that will be under even more focus tonight against a Duke roster loaded with talent.
"Well it magnifies it because they bring a variety of guards at you," Izzo said. "They're bringing some very good players that were highly recruited kids off the bench now. And I would say that we don't know, So yeah, that's a problem for us right now with two of our guards out, two of our wing guys potentially out. But that's the way it is."
The Spartans, shorthanded or not, will have their hands full with a Blue Devils roster that contains nine McDonald's All-Americans, including freshman Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones, two players Izzo recruited heavily.
"I did recruit those guys a lot," Izzo said. "I know what they do. But the film can tell you that too. Our players are going to know what they do. It's stopping what they do that will be the challenge."
The rankings say it's a huge challenge for Michigan State and it probably doesn't help that Izzo's mark against Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski is 1-7.
But like their coach, the Spartans aren't shying away from tonight's matchup.
"We feel like it's a pretty good matchup for us," Trice said. "It's a great team, big stage and anytime you're playing a top-five team in the nation you can't complain at all. I think it's an opportunity for everybody to see how good we really can be."
And for Michigan State senior Branden Dawson, it's a chance to bounce back from a poor first game of the season and become 3-1 as a starter in the Champions Classic, the only player to start in all four years of the event.
"We've been in this position many times," Dawson said. "Since my freshman year, we've always been the underdogs and we won a Big Ten championship. It's really not about where you're ranked, it's about how you play."
Trice was named the Big Ten Player of the Week on Monday after scoring 25 points in Michigan State's victory over Navy.
He was 8-for-14 from the field, including 5-for-6 from 3-point range. He also handed out five assists without turning the ball over and grabbed five rebounds in 34 minutes. It is the first player of the week award for the senior.
Michigan State vs. Duke
Tip-off: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis
Records: No. 19 Michigan State 1-0, No. 4 Duke 2-0
TV/radio: ESPN/WJR 760
Notable: It's the first game of a doubleheader in the Champions Classic. Kentucky and Kansas are in the second game. ... Duke leads Michigan State 7-2 in the series and Tom Izzo is 1-7 against Mike Kryzyzewski. The teams last played in the 2013 NCAA Tournament, with Duke winning 71-61.