Cassius Winston, Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. on MSU's win over UConn. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Portland, Ore. – After North Carolina got done disposing of Arkansas on Friday afternoon, Tar Heels coach Roy Williams said he hadn’t watched a second of film on Michigan State.
To be fair, at that point Williams wasn’t sure which team North Carolina would face in the championship game of the PK80 Invitational Victory Bracket, considering it would be hours before No. 4 Michigan State would dispatch of Connecticut.
But with Saturday off, there was no doubt Williams would be familiar with the Spartans as Michigan State and No. 9 North Carolina were set to square off at 8:30 p.m. Sunday (ESPN) at the Moda Center.
The key for Michigan State is that its coach, Tom Izzo, wasn’t worried as much about breaking down the Tar Heels. He was more worried about his team’s slow offensive starts recently, including the victory over UConn when the Spartans shot only 32.4 percent in the first half and led by just one point at the break.
“It’s not even about what the other team does right now that’s as critical to me as what we do,” Izzo said. “We just don’t look like a team … though watching Duke, watching Arizona, watching Purdue, there are a lot of weird games right now. So, I think I’ll be pleased with the win, pleased we’re making progress defensively and pleased we made a lot of progress with our turnovers.
“The negatives are I don’t think we’re playing well offensively and that’s disappointing. We’re not executing like we have been executing and if we don’t do that Sunday we’ll be going home with a loss.”
The Spartans (4-1) will need a better start offensively against the defending national champions, which pulled away late against Arkansas after beating Portland in the tournament opener.
Michigan State, in the meantime, scored just 28 points in the first half on Friday after a sluggish start on Thursday against DePaul. But the matchup with North Carolina (5-0) followed by a visit from No. 13 Notre Dame next week in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge marks a good chance for Izzo to measure where his team stands early in the season.
“It is, I just done know where we are quite yet,” Izzo said, noting that while Miles Bridges returned from a sprained ankle on Friday he’s not back to 100 percent. “But it is a good way to measure our team because right now I’m not measuring really good offensively. I’m sick of the poor first halves but I will say my team seems to be responding.
“Maybe it’s time for me to start taking off the gloves and getting back at it because we’ve got to play a lot harder. When we do that at halftime or in the huddle, some guys are responding a little better and maybe most of that is my fault.”
Whose fault it is won’t exactly be the focus when the teams tip off on Sunday. Michigan State will be attempting to end a seven-game skid against the Tar Heels, its last win coming in 2000. The previous meeting between the programs came at the Breslin Center in 2013 when North Carolina came in and rolled to a 79-65 victory.
Sunday’s game won’t be viewed by the Spartans as a chance to stem the tide in the series as much as it will be to prove to themselves they belong among the nation’s best this season.
“That’s a good team that’s coming off a good year and they’re doing good things right now,” Michigan State sophomore Cassius Winston said. “Every time we want to play the best teams and they are considered one of the best teams and we want to prove ourselves against them. We want to prove we’ve grown from last year, we’ve grown from our first game and we’re ready now.”
While the Tar Heels lost three starters from last season’s national championship team, the cupboard is hardly bare.
Senior Joe Berry is a force at point guard and will be a tough defensive assignment for the Spartans while junior Luke Maye has been on fire to start the season. He scored a career-high 28 points, grabbed a career-high 16 rebounds and had five assists in the win over Arkansas. It was his third double-double of the season, and he has scored 20 or more points in four of North Carolina’s first five games.
But even with those challenges, Michigan State relishes the chance to play North Carolina for a championship.
“It’s great to play them early because we don’t hide from anybody,” freshman Jaren Jackson Jr. said. “It’s great to get these experiences in now instead of when it comes to March and not having played as good of competition. We play the best of the best all the time so we’ll try to make sure we’re ready to play at all times.”
Winston’s career night of 28 points in the win over Connecticut was highlighted by him shooting 12-for-15 from the field, including 4-of-5 from 3-point range, establishing career best in field goals made and attempted and 3-point field goals made and attempted.
He scored 23 of his 28 points in the second half, and scored 18 of MSU's final 26 points over the last 8:23. He also assisted on two other baskets, having a direct hand in 22 of MSU's final 26 points.
… Michigan State committed a season-low eight turnovers, and outscored UConn 12-4 in points off turnovers.
… Michigan State advanced to the championship game of a preseason tournament for the fourth time in the last five years. The Spartans won the 2013 Coaches Vs. Cancer Classic in Brooklyn and the 2015 Wooden Legacy in California, while finishing second in the 2014 Orlando Classic.