'It's finally here': No. 1 MSU cruises in tune-up, Kentucky showdown on horizon
East Lansing — The countdown to the real thing begins now for Michigan State.
The No. 1 team in the nation played its only official exhibition game at the Breslin Center on Tuesday night, dispatching Division III Albion, 85-50.
Now, the focus turns to next week’s 1 vs. 2 matchup when the Spartans take on second-ranked Kentucky in the Champions Classic at Madison Square Garden in New York. It will be the third time Michigan State has been part of a 1-2 game in the event, but this is the first time it will be the top-ranked team.
“It just feels like we've put in a lot of work this summer and worked extremely hard and it's kind of crazy that it’s right here in front of our face,” senior guard Cassius Winston said. “The season is actually starting. It felt like it was kind of far away, you get anxious and you get ready for this moment all summer. That is what we've been working for and it's finally here.”
First, Michigan State had to take care of business on Tuesday against Albion.
The Spartans showed the typical rustiness of a team that was last seen playing in last season’s Final Four. Winston and junior big man Xavier Tillman were solid, as expected. Tillman scored 19 on 8-for-12 shooting while grabbing eight rebounds. Winston finished with 16 points while going 4-for-7 from 3-point range and handing out nine assists.
Sophomore Thomas Kithier played well getting the start at power forward. He scored seven and grabbed 11 rebounds while the Spartans’ other two starters — sophomore Aaron Henry and freshman Rocket Watts — never found a rhythm. Henry was 2-for-6 from the field while Watts was 2-for-7, including 0-for-5 from 3-point range.
Still, the overall showing was better than the closed scrimmage against Gonzaga played back on Oct. 19 when the Zags got the best of the Spartans.
“Just our effort you know, that was the big that was a big difference,” Winston said of how Michigan State played on Tuesday. “We played harder, still made some mistakes and there are some things that we gotta fix, but we played harder and that's gonna help us out.”
Jamezell Davis scored 17 to lead Albion while Caden Ebeling added nine points.
The Winston reunion — Cassius Winston’s brothers Zach and Khy play for the Britons — lost some of its luster when sophomore Zach Winston was forced to sit out because of a hamstring injury. Khy Winston, a freshman, saw plenty of action in the second half and even hit a 3-pointer over Cassius.
“Nah, nah,” Cassius Winston said when asked if he’ll ever hear the end of it from his youngest brother. “That was probably a big moment for him. I helped a little deep and let him get one. I dared him to shoot it.”
Michigan State made sure it used its bench, especially in the first half, as 11 players saw action with Joshua Langford (foot) out until at least January and Kyle Ahrens sitting out as he continues to allow a high ankle sprain to heal ahead of next week’s matchup with Kentucky.
Tillman scored 11 on 5-for-7 shooting in the first half, his only two misses coming from 3-point range. Gabe Brown was active in almost 13 minutes with seven points on 3-for-6 shooting while Kithier had eight rebounds in the opening half.
Nine straight points helped the Spartans turn a 27-20 lead into a 36-20 advantage as they clamped down on the defensive end.
Michigan State slowly pulled away throughout the second half as it went deep into the bench with walk-ons Jack Hoiberg and Brock Washington seeing the floor for extended minutes. Freshman Steven Izzo, son of coach Tom Izzo, checked in with 3:07 to play, and scored his first point when he hit the first of two free throws.
“This and the Gonzaga game, we were trying to play 11-12 guys to get some minutes, see who fits in where, especially at the 4 spot,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “We don’t know what will happen with Kyle so we’re looking at some other guys at the 2. We’re digging down here a little bit.
“It was one of those nights where everybody got to do something.”
Michigan State’s attention now turns to Kentucky and the Champions Classic. It’s an event that always delivers and this time featured the top four ranked teams in the nation with No. 3 Kansas taking on No. 4 Duke in the other matchup.
“I'm excited about it,” Izzo said. “How do you beat at night? How do you beat this for our conference for our university, for our program and for our team to be involved in a 1, 2, 3, 4?
“I don't know if we're ready for that right now. I say that but what a great opportunity to see, to see for myself, see for my team. But the exposure and the night … I think it’s great for Michigan State.”