Orlando, Fla. — Before winning last year's Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, it had been a while since Michigan State had come out on top in a preseason tournament.
In fact, it was the 2003 Spartan Classic, when Michigan State defeated Penn and DePaul. But it wasn't one of the marquee events the Spartans have been part of in the last 10 years. From a pair of trips to the Maui Invitational to the CBE Classic in Kansas City, they have failed to reach that championship game and win.
Now, as part of the Orlando Classic for the second time, the focus is on turning that trend around.
"I think this is a great opportunity for us because every game now the competition will get a little tougher," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "This is a good time for that to happen. The Duke game we got a little bit of an idea where we are, and then with Rider or either Marquette or Georgia Tech it takes a jump. This will be good for us and I'm anxious to see how we respond."
Michigan State, which cruised to wins over lesser competition while playing No. 4 Duke fairly close in the Champions Classic, opens against Rider, but should see plenty of challenges after that. A victory set up a matchup against the Georgia Tech-Marquette winner, and another victory could set up a potential matchup against No. 11 Kansas.
But there are no guarantees on either side of the bracket. Kansas would have to beat Rhode Island in its opener, a team that already has beaten a ranked Nebraska team. After that, it would be either Tennessee or Santa Clara, the team Michigan State defeated at home on Monday.
"There will be some good teams down there," Izzo said. "Rhode Island just beat Nebraska, and I know how good Kansas is. Georgia Tech has a couple of big wins and we got a chance to see Tennessee (in the Armed Forces Classic). They are a talented team and it will be interesting to see what they get done."
The three games in four days at HP Field House will be the beginning of a touch stretch for Michigan State. After returning Sunday, Michigan State leaves Tuesday for a matchup at Notre Dame on Wednesday as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
And with Alvin Ellis (ankle) and Javon Bess (foot) still out and Branden Dawson trying to bounce back from missing Monday's game with the flu, the team's depth will be tested.
"The main thing is to rest our bodies and get plenty of sleep," freshman Marvin Clark said. "At the end of the day this is what we dream for, playing a lot of games. This is what we do. It kind of takes you back to the AAU days with four games in one day.
"But we don't need any more injuries or anything like that. The big key is resting and taking care of your body."
While Dawson should play tonight, Izzo is still unsure of when Ellis might be back and believes it will be closer to Christmas, the same prognosis as Bess has had since breaking his foot just before the season began. Izzo is also hoping junior guard Bryn Forbes will be able to lose the brace on his left hand that has been protecting a broken bone.
"He got the boot off and did a little shooting," Izzo said of Ellis early this week. "He actually did a little shooting drill but hasn't done any layups yet. I think doubtful for this weekend. We're getting to the point now that he's missed a couple weeks (the concern is) his conditioning and his game and his shot. Bryn is still having trouble with that hand. ... It's nothing wrong with it, but he's just got to deal with it.
"We need to get through next Wednesday and keep chugging along."
Rider vs. Michigan State
Tip-off: 6:30 tonight, HP Field House, Orlando, Fla.
Records: Rider 2-2, No. 20 Michigan State 3-1
Outlook: This is Michigan State's second appearance in the Orlando Classic, going 2-1 in 2008. ... This is the first meeting between Michigan State and Rider. ... Rider junior G Zedric Sadler, who played at Detroit Cody, is averaging 11.8 points.