No. 3 MSU flirts with top ranking after latest win
East Lansing — By the end of the weekend, Michigan State might be the No. 1 ranked team in the country. By the end of the afternoon Saturday, the Spartans were 9-0 after knocking off Binghamton University 76-33 at the Breslin Center.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo acknowledged the possibility, but said that there was still work for his team to do.
"I know we're not the best team in the country right now in my mind," Izzo said. "Unless a lot of other teams are playing a little sloppy like we do at times. Somebody's got to be it. If they want to give it to us I'm going to embrace it."
Bryn Forbes led Michigan State with 14 points.
Denzel Valentine scored 13, and Eron Harris 11. Marvin Clark, Jr. added nine points.
Valentine notched a double-double with 12 rebounds
Justin McFadden led Binghamton (2-5) with 10 points. Willie Rodriguez added six while Thomas Bruce and Dusan Perovic each scored five.
"I thought we defended them fairly well," Binghamton coach Tommy Dempsey said. "It's hard when you're not scoring, because we're back in transition almost every single possession. But I thought our guys were running back and getting on defense well. I thought we played very well. We just couldn't put the ball in the basket."
MSU got out to a quick start in the first half. Valentine scored six of Michigan State's first nine points, and at the first media timeout, the Spartans were up 11-2.
The first of Valentine's points was particularly flashy, coming on an alley-oop from Lourawls "Tum Tum" Nairn.
"It was a play we wanted to do off the tip," Nairn said. "I just kind of read the defense coming down in transition and tried to make the right play."
Michigan State kept up pressure in the half, taking a 41-12 lead into the break.
Binghamton's 12 points is the fewest allowed by Michigan State in the first half since Rider University scored 11 on Nov. 27, 2014. Michigan State won that game 77-45.
At the half, Valentine had all 13 of his points, on 5-of-6 shooting.
As a team, Michigan State shot 51.7 percent (15-of-29), while holding Binghamton to 12.9 percent (4-of-31), in the half.
"I thought we did defend well today," Izzo said. "I thought offensively they did a better job on us than we did on them. That was the only disappointing thing for me today. We did miss some open shots."
The Spartans started the second half a little roughly, but settled in midway through. Michigan State led by as much as 42 (67-25, 5:00 remaining) on the way to the commanding win.
Valentine, who started strong in the first half was scoreless in the second.
"I think Denzel gets into a thing where assists are very important," Izzo said. "Guys were fumbling dunks and I think I just see his face go down. He didn't seem to have the same flash in the second half. Doggone Denzel gets a double-double and we're not happy with him. What a great world we live in."
Michigan State will host the University of Maryland Eastern Shore on Wednesday night. The Hawks (1-5) are part of the University of Maryland system, but play in the Mid-East Athletic Conference (MEAC).
Lonely at the top?
Izzo said the notion of being the top-ranked team in the country comes with its own pressures.
"I think that there's a long time that we had to learn how to be the hunter," he said. "We were the hunter for a long time. When you're ranked number one, you're the hunted. I think this team needs to know what it's like to be the hunted. So if that works out, it'd be great."
Forbes said he and his teammates would be happy if the Spartans were ranked No. 1, but that there is also more to play for.
"It's always exciting to be the number one team in basketball," Forbes said. "I think we have a bigger goal in mind than just being number one: a national championship. That's what we're always striving for."
Izzo added that rankings this early in the season should be taken with a grain of salt.
"As we all know, what you're ranked in December has no bearing on you've done in February and March," he said. "But if that (being ranked No. 1) happens, it's a feather in your program's hat. It's always good to have your team ranked high."
A big day in East Lansing
Izzo kept the postgame news conference short, because he was flying down to Indianapolis to watch MSU's football team take on Iowa for the Big Ten Championship.
If the Spartans win, it would be special, Izzo said.
If it works out that our football team wins tonight, I think that would be iconic," he said of sharing a No. 1 ranking with a Big Ten football championship.
Izzo joked that MSU football coach Mark Dantonio and his staff might be looking at tonight's game as a microcosm of what Izzo and his staff does nearly every spring.
"You know I love my guy (Dantonio), but they get it a little easy," Izzo quipped. "They don't get that one-and-done pressure that basketball's always in. Tonight, we're kind of in that. I think it's great that Mark Dantonio has taken his program there. They're in one-and-done time. They're in the Elite Eight. If they win, they'll be in the Final Four.
"It's about time these football guys started using the same analogies. They're smarter and I'm proud of them for that. "
Immediately after the game, Izzo spoke to the fans at Breslin. He encouraged them to try and watch the football team's game against Iowa.
"Make sure tonight when we win that game, you represent Michigan State the best that you can," Izzo said. "Do whatever you want, just don't burn any couches."
Al Willman is a freelance writer