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Lake Buena Vista, Fla. – There won't be many awards handed out for shutting down Rider, but Michigan State is starting to show the improvement defensively its coach has been looking for the first few weeks of the season.

No. 20 Michigan State held Rider to four first-half field goals and cruised to a 77-45 victory Thursday in the opening round of the Orlando Classic at HP Field House. The 11 first-half points by Rider were the fewest allowed by Michigan State since it allowed 11 in the first half against Penn State on Jan. 22, 2003.

Guards Denzel Valentine and Travis Trice led the way on both ends of the floor beginning with shutting down the Rider guards and capping it off with some impressive offense. Valentine got rolling in the second half and scored 19 points while Trice scored 10 and had four assists.

"We've been better defensively than I thought," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "They are not playing as well as I thought they would but they've got some pretty good guards. (Teddy) Okereafor, that kid is really good and we did a heck of a job on him. When Trice and Valentine are playing that good defensively that is encouraging because when we get our two (injured) guys back, J.B. (Javon Bess) and Alvin (Ellis), that makes us better because they're pretty good defensively, too."

The Spartans advanced to today's semifinals where they will face Marquette, which outlasted Georgia Tech, 72-70. The semifinal matchup is set to tip at 9 p.m. on ESPN2.

Things started quickly for Michigan State (4-1) as it jumped to a 10-1 lead and went up 32-11 at halftime. And while the offense was sloppy at times, the defense was outstanding.

Rider (2-3) was just 4-for-29 from the field, including 1-for-8 from 3-point range. Those numbers improved in the second half as the Broncs finished 16-for-62 (26 percent) from the field and just 1-for-13 from 3-point range.

"I think we made that very important in practice," Valentine said of his team's defense. "That was the one thing we needed to get better at. After the Navy game we've been stressing defense and me and Trav have really been taking it upon us to set the tone and then the team follows."

It has resulted in two straight games with opponents shooting less than 30 percent and a team that is starting to look more like a typical Michigan State team defensively.

"I think communication, helping each other out (is good)," Izzo said. "We're really jumping to the ball, we're really taking away a lot of those gaps and have been talking on the ball screens. I think our guards are pressing up a little more when they need to. Our assistant coaches have done a great job with scouting reports. We're so young and inexperienced together that it's been more playing to the scouting report than just concepts and principles."

With the defense in good shape, other than some late-game breakdowns when Izzo was trying to get some players some rest, the second-half focus turned to the offense.

More specifically, that meant getting Valentine into a rhythm.

The junior has struggled the last few games but he responded with 17 second-half points

"I put an emphasis on getting him going," Izzo said. "Denzel Valentine has got to play better and do better offensively if we are going to be a great team. He's our most versatile player and I love a million things about him. We just haven't been able to get him going consistently.

"We did make a concerted effort in the second half and I said to him, 'Now go set your feet and be ready.' To his credit, he did."

Junior transfer Bryn Forbes scored 15 in his best effort in his first season since transferring from Cleveland State, while Gavin Schilling added 10 points and Matt Costello pulled down eight rebounds and had three blocks.

Matt Lopez scored 14 points to lead Rider (2-3).

"I thought they took us out of some things that we were trying to get done," Rider coach Kevin Baggett said. "You've got to give them credit defensively. I thought we pressed a little bit when we didn't make shots."

Freshman Marvin Clark started for the second straight game in place of Branden Dawson, who has been ailing with the flu. The senior didn't play at all in Michigan State's victory over Santa Clara on Monday but entered the game on Thursday with 16:50 to play in the first half. Dawson finished with three points and six rebounds in 16 minutes of action.

Ellis missed his fourth game with a sprained right ankle suffered in the season-opener against Navy and Izzo said his recovery has been going slower than expected. However, Izzo added that Bess, who is out with a broken right foot, has been coming along quickly and could come back after Michigan State faces Notre Dame on Wednesday in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

On the other side of the bracket, Tennessee opened the Orlando Classic with a 64-57 victory over Santa Clara while No. 11 Kansas knocked off Rhode Island, 76-60. Tennessee and Kansas meet at noon Friday with the winner advancing to Sunday's championship game.

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

twitter.com/mattcharboneau

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