No. 3 Michigan State braces for huge challenge in beefy No. 12 Seton Hall

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Xavier Tillman (23) and the rest of the Michigan State frontcourt will have a tall task ahead with Seton Hall's enormous frontcourt.

Michigan State’s time at the top of the college basketball rankings didn’t last long, but that hardly means the run of games against some of the best teams in the nation is changing.

Coming off Sunday’s one-sided victory at home over Binghamton, No. 3 Michigan State now heads to Newark, N.J., where it will take on No. 12 Seton Hall at 8:30 p.m. Thursday at the Prudential Center as part of the Gavitt Tipoff Games, a collaborative event between the Big Ten and the Big East.

It’s the first time Michigan State (1-1) has played in the event, and the Spartans are jumping with a true road game against a huge opponent. The Pirates feature a pair of 7-foot-2 centers and three more frontcourt players who are 6-10 or taller.

“I’ve never seen so many big guys,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “The guards are even 6-6 and 6-4, so this will be the biggest team we played, and I said at the beginning of the year that I thought they would be the best team we play at the time. I said it in my first press conference and I haven't changed. I think Kentucky will get better. Who knows, Georgia or Dayton could be better. Kansas could be better. Duke could be better in January or February. But if you looked at this team having eight out of nine (of its leading scorers) back, if you look at this team with mostly juniors and seniors, they're the most experienced, tough, well-coached team with a superstar.”

The Pirates (2-0) do have a superstar, but whether guard Myles Powell plays is up in the air.

A preseason All-American selection along with Michigan State’s Cassius Winston, Powell injured his ankle in Saturday’s victory over Stony Brook and coach Kevin Willard said at the time he expected a “prolonged absence” for the 6-2 guard who averaged 23.1 points a game last season.

Even with that prognosis, Izzo is planning as if Powell will be in the lineup. Even if he isn’t, the Spartans understand the Pirates be playing with a significant size advantage as the starting front line of Xavier Tillman and Thomas Kithier stand just 6-8.

“The whole game I have to think tactically,” Tillman said. “A lot of times when I play, I like to play with power and play with aggression. But now I’m going to have to play with a little finesse and play with a lot of skillfulness. Shot faking, using my body going into them so they can’t block my shot. Different types of revers layups. Maybe spacing the floor with a couple jump shots. Just being sound and very tactical with my offense.”

It’s not just an issue for the frontcourt, either.

Michigan State will need its wings to get on the glass, as well, and allow the Spartans to control the tempo.

“Just being low, using leverage to our advantage,” 6-6 guard Aaron Henry explained. “They are a huge team, and they have a lot skill on the wings and at the guard position as well. We have to go in there as wings and help those bigs rebound. They are tall, they’re big, heavy in the front court. We just have to go in there and help rebound with them.”

Not only will the Spartans be tested by size and experience of the Pirates, this will be the first true road game for Michigan State after taking on Kentucky in a neutral-site game.

It creates quite a different atmosphere, even more so than playing at Madison Square Garden in front of plenty of Kentucky fans.

“You have no fans with you,” Tillman said of the difference. “Your only fans are the ones on the bench, and if we are playing bad, Coach isn’t going to be a fan, either. Our only fans are the guys we come into the arena with. It’s going to be hard, but it’s going to be exciting too, to see how connected and close we are and what we’re going to need to work on from there on.”

After the matchup with Seton Hall, Michigan State hosts Charleston Southern on Monday before heading to Hawaii for the Maui Classic where it will face Virginia Tech, either Georgia or Dayton, and possibly No. 5 Kansas.

When the Spartans return, they host No. 2 Duke on Dec. 3 for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. It’s a typical schedule for Michigan State, and one the players relish.

“It’s a blessing to step on the court anytime, especially when we are playing in new events like this,” Henry said. “Being a part of the No. 1 preseason ranked team in the country, now the Gavitt Games, we get to go to Maui, it’s just a blessing and I’m glad we get this experience before March.”

No. 3 Michigan State at No. 12 Seton Hall

Tip-off: 8:30 p.m. Thursday, Prudential Center, Newark, N.J.

TV/radio: FS1/760

Records: Michigan State 1-1; Seton Hall 2-0

Outlook: This is the second game in the first three that Michigan State will take on a ranked opponent. … It’s the first appearance in the Gavitt Games for MSU. … Senior guard Cassius Winston is expected to make the trip and play as he continues to cope with the recent death of his brother, Zachary. … Seton Hall preseason All-American guard Myles Powell is questionable after injuring his ankle last weekend.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau