East Lansing — For the last two decades, Michigan State has dominated Oakland.
That’s a simple conclusion to make when looking at the fact the Spartans haven’t lost to the Golden Grizzlies in all 16 meetings dating to 1998.
Of course, that’s the conclusion that would be arrived at by simply looking at wins and losses. A little closer examination shows this series has been as competitive as virtually any out there between a team from a major program and one from a one-bid NCAA Tournament league like the Horizon.
There was Michigan State’s one-point win at The Palace in 2010 and a four-point victory at the same venue in 2013. And last season’s battle at Little Caesars Arena saw Oakland nearly knock off the second-ranked Spartans
But none have come as close as the meeting in 2015 at The Palace. Michigan State was the No. 1 team in the country but playing without an injured Denzel Valentine. Bryn Forbes scored 32 and Eron Harris had 27 to bail out the Spartans in overtime after Oakland’s Kay Felder, who scored 37, had a driving layup in the final seconds of regulation hang on the rim before falling out. He was fouled with OU down two and hit the free throws to send it to overtime, but a three-point play could have won it for the Grizzlies.
“I don’t know what to say,” Oakland coach Greg Kampe said that day. “I thought the ball was going in. I thought Felder’s shot at the end was going in and it hung on the thing and fell off. That close. That close to beating the No. 1 team in the country.”
That frustration has been there often in this series for Kampe, but he and the Grizzlies will take another shot at getting that first win at 7 p.m. Friday at the Breslin Center.
It’s a matchup that absolutely has the attention of the Spartans, who have spent the better part of the week practicing multiple times a day while dialing in on the Grizzlies the past couple.
“I’ll just tell you that it doesn’t matter what their record is, and it doesn’t matter what ours is,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “It’s been a very good little rivalry. They’ve always played really well. We’ve had some great teams that went down to the wire with them.”
The records often only tell part of the story. Both the Spartans and Golden Grizzlies challenge themselves in the nonconference portion of the season, something that is tougher for a mid-major like Oakland. The Golden Grizzlies have played the last five games on the road, winning just once, and won’t play at home until early January.
It’s led to a 4-8 start for Oakland, but No. 10 Michigan State (9-2, 2-0 Big Ten) isn’t paying much attention to that. Instead, the Spartans are focused on a team that is making 41.9 percent of its 3-pointers, good for seventh-best in the nation as Oakland averages 10.9 made 3s a game.
Junior forward Xavier Hill-Mais is averaging 22.8 points and 6.4 rebounds a game while junior guard Jaevin Cumberland is scoring 16.3 points a game and shooting 43.8 percent from 3-point range. Freshman guard Braden Norris is shooting 60.5 percent (26-for-43) from 3-point range.
“I think right now they’ve got two players that are hard to cover,” Izzo said. “The other thing is when do upsets happen? It happens when guys shoot threes. They make 11 threes. We’re shooting the ball pretty well and we make eight and a half. They make 11 threes a game.”
It will push a Michigan State defense that has been very good overall defensively, ranking 11th in the nation in field-goal percentage defense at 37.2 percent but is middle of the pack in the country when it comes to defending the 3-pointer, allowing teams to shoot 32 percent.
Even that, though, would be effective against the Grizzlies.
“They’re a good team and they’ve got shooters,” Michigan State’s Matt McQuaid said. “Every year I’ve been here it’s always been a challenging game. So, they’re a good team and we got to get ready for them.”
That’s been the focus this week as Michigan State has had plenty of time to be on the practice floor. They went twice a day early in the week as the intensity was ramped up following a tough stretch of games leading into final exams last week.
It will be Izzo’s first chance since Sunday’s win over Green Bay to see if Michigan State has taken a step closer to playing a complete game.
“Finish,” he said when asked what he wants to see against Oakland. “I’m looking for us to finish games, finish halves. I’m looking for me and (assistant coach Dwayne Stephens) to do a better job with the substitutions and consistency. So, some of it is looking for them to finish better, some of it is looking for me to coach better, seriously.”
Oh, and keep Oakland from finally getting that upset it’s come so close to getting in the past.
Oakland at No. 10 Michigan State
Tip-off: 7 p.m. Friday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
Records: Oakland 4-8; Michigan State 9-2, 2-0 Big Ten
Outlook: Michigan State has won all 16 matchups in the series, including 10 at home where the Spartans have won by double digits every time but one. … The Golden Grizzlies lead the Horizon League in six different categories, all of which rank in the top 10 in the nation: total assists (second; 226), assist-to-turnover ratio (fifth; 1.69), 3-point field goal percentage (seventh; 42 percent), total 3-pointers (eighth; 131), 3-pointers per game (10th; 10.9) and assists per game (10th; 18.8).