East Lansing – Forgive Mark Montgomery if he heads for the wrong locker room or wonders if he’s standing near the wrong bench.
After all, he’s spent a large chunk of his basketball life at the Breslin Center, playing for the Spartans from 1989-92 for Jud Heathcote then returning as a member of Tom Izzo’s coaching staff for 10 seasons, the last five as associate head coach.
Montgomery makes his return on Saturday as Northern Illinois visits the Breslin Center to take on No. 8 Michigan State at 2 p.m.
“It’s been in the works for maybe four years,” Montgomery, now in his eighth season as Northern Illinois’ head coach, told "The Drive with Jack" radio program. “But (Michigan State) has a challenging schedule and scheduling is hard. But Coach came and spoke at what we call our Victory Ball and we talked about it and talked about it.
“It worked this year, but it’s very challenging with Big Ten teams playing those 20 games. That doesn’t help. We talked about it and we said let’s just squeeze it in and make it work. … Coach really stepped up and gave us a big guarantee. We appreciate it. I’m just grateful for the opportunity.”
It’s an opportunity Izzo doesn’t love but is more than willing to be a part of if it benefits both programs. Facing his former assistants isn’t at the top of his list, but Izzo was all for this matchup knowing it fit in the schedule and offered an opportunity to not only Northern Illinois, but the Spartans, as well.
“I don’t like it because I think it’s always a little harder,” Izzo said, “but I do like it if I think it benefits us and them.
“They’ve got some great one-on-one players that are better than people think. They dribble penetrate, they get in the lane. (Eugene) German will be a great challenge for Cassius (Winston). This is a big week for him.”
The one-on-one challenges will be a good way for Michigan State to get back into a rhythm after not playing since Dec. 21, when it beat Oakland by 30. The Golden Grizzlies are the only common opponent for Michigan State and Northern Illinois. The Spartans won by 30 at home while the Huskies won by 20 on the road.
But Montgomery insists it’s not something he’s focusing on.
“I don’t like to compare common opponents,” Montgomery said. “We play a different schedule. This is a great opportunity for us to try get to their level, but all their teams have depth, they bring the young guys along, they play extremely hard and really share the basketball and that’s impressive.”
That style of play is something Montgomery knows all about. It was the way the Spartans played when he was sharing the court with the likes of Dwayne Stephens, Matt Steigenga and Mike Peplowski, and it’s the same style Izzo has pushed throughout his 24 years as head coach.
Montgomery believes his team is similar.
“Our motto here is we’ve got to come up and play with great energy and great effort,” Montgomery said. “We like to blitz and break, get out and play fast. We average 81 points but at the same time we have to play smart. … We don’t want to get in a track meet with them. We’re 95 percent man-to-man and we’ll try and change some things up.
“We’ll play fast, defend and we’ll have to get back in transition defense.”
Izzo has had eight former assistants go on to become a head coach and Montgomery will be just the fourth he’s coached against, joining Tom Crean, Stan Joplin and Mike Garland.
Izzo has a 13-5 record against that group, going 11-4 vs. Crean with one matchup while Crean was at Marquette and the rest coming during his time at Indiana. Izzo beat Garland in the only meeting while Garland was the head coach at Cleveland State and Joplin, coaching Toledo, managed to beat Izzo and MSU once in two meetings.
Montgomery knows it won’t be easy to add another loss to that record.
“Dwayne Stephens was my best friend in my wedding and we’re still best friends today,” Montgomery said of the Spartans’ associate head coach. “We talk every week, but the funny thing is we haven’t talked this week. … They will not take it easy on me.”
Win or lose, Montgomery will always love his alma mater. He said he’s looking forward to showing his team around the facilities, giving them an idea of what their coach experienced.
He’ll also do his best to impart the sense of family in his program that exists at Michigan State.
“It shows it’s a special place,” Montgomery said. “Guys love to come back. Guys love to be involved in the program. I don’t get back like I used to but it’s fun knowing I played at a special university and that other players bought into the system and it’s paying off.”
Northern Illinois at No. 8 Michigan State
Tip-off: 2 p.m. Saturday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
TV/radio: BTN/WJR 760
Records: Northern Illinois 7-5; Michigan State 10-2, 2-0 Big Ten
Outlook: This is the second meeting between the teams with Northern Illinois winning the only previous matchup in 1970. … Michigan State enters the game ranked No. 9 in the country in scoring offense (87.6 points) and No. 14 in field-goal percentage (50.1 percent). … Junior guard Eugene German leads Northern Illinois in scoring at 21 points a game as the Huskies are third in the nation in field-goal percentage (52.3 percent).