Portland, Ore. — When Miles Bridges sat at his locker late Sunday night at the Moda Center, Michigan State fresh off whipping North Carolina and winning the Victory Bracket of the PK80 Invitational, there were a few teams he was thinking about.
Duke. Kentucky. Kansas. North Carolina.
He wasn’t talking about Big Ten victories over Purdue or Minnesota. He wasn’t thinking about victories over North Florida or Youngstown State.
The preseason All-American was talking about the big boys, the blue bloods. And entering Sunday night’s championship game against the Tar Heels, Bridges and his Spartan teammates had yet to beat any of those teams, having lost five straight to top 10-ranked teams.
There were losses in there to Arizona, Kentucky and Kansas, as well as a pair of losses to Duke, the most frustrating one coming just less than two weeks ago in the Champions Classic.
So, clearly, there was something different about the 63-45 victory in Portland.
“It’s basically the first top-tier team we’ve really beat,” Bridges said, after scoring 11 points against North Carolina. “Duke, Kentucky, Kansas. North Carolina, they’re up there with them. We just got over the hump, and we’re really satisfied with that.”
Satisfied with the win, sure. What team wouldn’t be?
But for a group that has far bigger goals than winning an early-season tournament in November, it can’t mean everything to the season.
After all, things don’t get any easier. Michigan State, which moved up to No. 3 in the Associated Press rankings, hosts Notre Dame on Thursday in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The Fighting Irish are coming off a victory in the Maui Invitational and have jumped up to No. 5, creating the first top-five matchup at the Breslin Center since Michigan State beat Ohio State in overtime on Jan. 7, 2014.
“It’s important, but listen,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “Everybody knows that we haven’t beaten Duke much, haven’t beaten Carolina much. One reason is we play them a lot, a lot more than any other non-conference teams. We’re not afraid to play them. We play ’em. We usually get our brains beat in and learn from it and get better, hopefully.”
It’s true, Michigan State (5-1) hasn’t beaten those teams much. The win on Sunday was Izzo’s third over the Tar Heels and his first over Roy Williams as the Carolina coach.
It wasn’t weighing on the players, but it was obvious they felt like they had something to prove.
“It didn’t bother us, but we knew we had to go out here and win the game and make a statement and win a championship,” said guard Joshua Langford, who scored a career-high 23 points. “This was the first championship in college for a lot of us, so we wanted to go out there and play Spartan basketball.”
That sort of basketball — defense and rebounding — was the key over the weekend, and it will be all season. But the Spartans were far from perfect. The 24 turnovers were a season-high and would have killed most teams and the fouling got out of control, not to mention the offense still has its moments where it seems stuck in the mud.
But, as Izzo pointed out, his teams usually learn from the early-season games, win or lose. The players all talked about it after the game. Langford scored a bunch but seemed to only talk about what more he could have done. Tournament MVP Cassius Winston lamented his turnovers instead of talking about his eight assists.
In other words, the Spartans were satisfied with the win but hardly content.
“We didn’t accomplish the world,” Izzo said. “We won a game and now we get back with probably another top-10 team coming in Notre Dame, who comes off Maui playing really, really well. So, we’re still taking it a step at a time. The good news is we’ve got a lot of work to do and they know it.”