Michigan State can make history in Boston

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Boston — Michigan State has already played its share of big games this season, picking up victories against the likes of Kansas, Providence and Louisville.

The Spartans also earned a tough win over Florida, which capped a stretch of eight games in a little less than three weeks.

But one of the toughest tests for No. 1 Michigan State might come Saturday at Northeastern.

On the surface, a game against a mid-major opponent might not seem that daunting. However, a closer look reveals a difficult day ahead as the Spartans (11-0) attempt to match the best start in school history.

Northeastern (7-3) was the Colonial Athletic Association champion and nearly knocked off Notre Dame in the NCAA Tournament. This year, the Huskies traveled south and upset No. 15 Miami (Florida), their first victory over a ranked team in 29 years.

However, Northeastern had also lost two straight — to Detroit and Western Michigan — before beating Stony Brook last Saturday.

"They have had a weird year," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "They lost to a couple of teams I didn't think they'd lose to, but they beat a Miami team that had just come off of some of the biggest wins of the year for Miami, so there's no doubt it's a very good team.

"There are four starters back and they were an NCAA (Tournament) team last year. They're very well-coached, and watching that team against Notre Dame, it wasn't a fluke. They looked good."

Northeastern is relishing the opportunity to take on the top-ranked team in the nation. The game is a sellout, the first at Matthews Arena since Northeastern faced Duke in 1995.

"I was all for it, because anything that can give our student-athletes an opportunity to compete and measure themselves I think is a very, very good thing," Northeastern coach Bill Coen told the Boston Herald. "We've never shied away from competition."

The game is the centerpiece of an event called the Northeastern Winter Showdown. It includes a meeting between the women's basketball teams on Friday night followed by the men at 12:30 on Saturday and is capped with the men's hockey teams facing off at 7 p.m. Saturday.

Each of the three games will be played at Matthews Arena, the original home of the Boston Bruins and the Boston Celtics. It's the oldest active men's basketball arena and underwent extensive renovations in 2010.

All of that is secondary to the Spartans, who took advantage of a physical break this week while taking final exams. They were worn out during last Saturday's victory over Florida, but the time off has been refreshing.

"In practice I felt probably the best I have felt in a week or two as far as my legs and having them back," senior guard Denzel Valentine said. "I feel great right now. I got some good rest."

A refreshed Michigan State team will be looking to win its 12th consecutive game, which would tie the 2000-01 team for the best start in school history. Another win on Tuesday against Oakland at The Palace of Auburn Hills would set a record and send the Spartans into Big Ten play unbeaten.

It's all on the line today against the Huskies.

"It's a huge game," Valentine said. "The biggest thing for me is we can make history. To be 12-0 and tie the best start in history, that would mean our name is there forever and they'll remember us for having the best start ever.

"And we want to hold on to No. 1. We want to go into the Big Ten season undefeated, No. 1, not having any losses. This is a huge game for us and every game from here on out we've got to treat like it's a championship game."

Michigan State will likely get junior center Gavin Schilling back for at least a few minutes. He's missed the entire regular season with turf toe, but practiced full-go this week and said he plans to play.

It will also be the first of four straight games away from the Breslin Center for the Spartans. After Tuesday's game against Oakland at The Palace, the Spartans begin Big Ten play at Iowa on Dec. 29 followed by a trip to Minnesota on Jan. 2.

"You learn a lot about a team on the road," Izzo said. "We have four in a row, and they are tough games, yet games that if we're gonna be good, we have to find a way to win. I'm anxious to see how our leadership is, how we are when things aren't going well, how we are in hostile places. I'm looking forward to that."

No. 1 Michigan State at Northeastern

Tip-off: 12:30 p.m. Saturday, Matthews Arena, Boston

TV/radio: NBC Sports Network/WJR 760

Records: No. 1 Michigan State 11-0; Northeastern 7-3

Notable: Michigan State is making its first trip to Boston since playing at Boston College in the 2006 ACC/Big Ten Challenge. … Northeastern's leading scorer, David Walker, averages 21.5 points a game and is the first Husky with at least two 30-point games in a single season since J.J. Barea in 2004-05. … This is the first meeting for Michigan State and Northeastern.