Game has Michigan State, Western thinking big

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo has a unique way of describing all sorts of things his team goes through during a season, a set of go-to phrases, if you will.

And one of his tried and true lines deals with any time the Spartans play a team on the road that doesn’t typically host a high-profile program.

“It will be Fourth of July, Christmas and New Year’s,” he says to describe the atmosphere his team is about to enter.

At 7 Friday night at Waldo Stadium in Kalamazoo, it won’t be Izzo’s team at the center of a holiday, it will be Mark Dantonio and the fifth-ranked football team taking on Western Michigan.

This week, third-year Western Michigan coach P.J. Fleck said it was likely one of the biggest events to take place in Kalamazoo.

Considering the Spartans are the second Big Ten team to come to Kalamazoo, that is impressive, but the fact they are a top-five team has the Broncos especially fired up.

And why wouldn’t they be? The Broncos won eight games last season, played in a bowl and are expecting to compete in the Mid-American Conference West. They understand the opportunity.

“You look at the Spartans, they’re exceptional players and they have an exceptional head coach that has them believing in each other and has them as a team,” Fleck said. “That’s the scariest part of the Spartans.

“However, I think we have the same type of thing when you look on our side of the ball. You look at us as we continue to develop our chemistry within our organization and continue to develop the best team we can possibly be.”

The Spartans also understand the position their opponents are in. After all, they have built their program on proving they belong, proving they are as good as any other team in the country.

They expect the same approach tonight from the Broncos.

“I expect opening night to be a big deal for them,” junior safety Demetrious Cox said. “I would have that mindset if I was them. I would want to come out and show what we can do against one of the top programs in the country. We can’t go just throw our helmets out there.”

If that happens, Michigan State could be in for a long night against an offense that can score quickly. But the preparation for Western Michigan has been the only focus since late last week, players and coaches say.

Even with a looming top-10 showdown against Oregon next week.

“We haven’t talked about Oregon that much,” junior linebacker Riley Bullough said. “You keep them in your mind, but that’s a lot different than saying you’re looking past Western. It’s not that at all. You do have to focus on your big games in the offseason, but the last week or so has been strictly Western.”

Not looking ahead is something Michigan State has done well under Dantonio. Four seasons out of five with 11 wins is a testament to that, and Dantonio believes the makeup of this year’s team will allow for the same approach.

“Our football team has always done a great job in terms of focusing on the present,” Dantonio said. “But especially in your first game, I don’t think people look too far in advance. I’m not concerned about that at all. We have a pretty mature football team in terms of a lot of fifth-year seniors, things of that nature.”

But back to that Christmas and New Year’s thing, the one Izzo often talks about.

The Spartans know they’re going to walk into a stadium smaller than they’re used to, but raucous nonetheless. And odds are there won’t be much green and white.

It will be a significant test for a team that aspires to play for a national championship. But that journey doesn’t happen without a victory.

“I think it will be a huge game for them and that university,” Bullough said. “It’s gonna be hyped. ... We’re not looking at that too much. We don’t care, just show us the field and we’ll play. That’s our mindset.

“It doesn’t matter who we’re playing. We expect to be one of the top teams in the country. That is how we prepare each week, that is how we prepare all offseason, and that just helps our mindset.”