East Lansing — If Michigan State expects an easy game tonight when it hosts Eastern Michigan, all it needs to do is ask its rival in Ann Arbor.
A week ago, Eastern Michigan walked into Crisler Center and knocked off Michigan.
So that, and the fact the Eagles employ a tenacious zone defense, has the No. 25 Spartans on high alert.
"Their record shows how some of the teams they've played they won handily," Michigan State senior Travis Trice said. "We can't take anybody for granted. You see around the country that anybody can be beaten on any given night, and our thing is we don't want to be one of those teams."
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo never has lost to Eastern Michigan, but this is one of the better Eagles teams in recent memory. They are coming off a 22-win season in 2013-14, their first 20-win season since 1997-98, and employ one of the toughest zone defenses around.
It's the same type of 2-3 zone played at Syracuse, where coach Rob Murphy was an assistant for seven years before taking over at Eastern Michigan in 2011.
"You can be guaranteed that our guys are getting Big Ten-type prep time on this game because (the zone) is the wishbone of basketball," Izzo said. "It's something you don't see. Even though we've played other zones, you don't see them like this. This is a different animal. It's gonna take a little more concentration."
And while Murphy doesn't have the athletes the Orange typically do, the Eagles play it in a way that is frustrating opponents.
The 45-42 victory over Michigan was the 15th time since the beginning of the 2011-12 season that Eastern Michigan has held a team to 45 points or fewer. And in nine games this season, Eastern Michigan is holding opponents to 55.9 points and 35.6 percent shooting. It also has a turnover margin of plus-4.2, forcing 8.7 steals.
"That zone is legit," Izzo said. "Murph learned well from his mentor (Jim Boeheim), but I think he's added some things. ... They're not as big as like a Syracuse zone but they're way more athletic. They just fly around like a bunch of bees. They're everywhere."
Senior Branden Dawson, who is two points shy of 1,000 for his career, will play a key role for the Spartans. He'll be tasked with getting the ball in the middle of the zone and being a decision-maker.
"The middle guy is definitely an important guy," Dawson said. "Coach put me in there and I'm reading the defense and seeing what is open based on how they're playing."
And on top of potentially winning their third straight, the Spartans believe facing the Eagles defense could pay dividends down the road.
"Let's just say that we get lucky and get into the tournament and we run into a Louisville again," Izzo said. "This is more similar to that. Last time we did that, it was a joke. We didn't play very well. Anytime you can get something in the nonconference that can help you throughout the year, it's a benefit."
Eastern Michigan at Michigan State
Tip-off: Wednesday, 9 p.m., Breslin Center, East Lansing
Records: Eastern Michigan 8-1, No. 25 Michigan State 7-3
Outlook: Branden Dawson needs two points to become the 46th player in Michigan State history with 1,000 career points. ... Eastern Michigan ranks in the top 20 nationally in scoring defense (17th, 55.9 points) and shooting defense (15th, 35.6 percent).