Oakland still seeking first victory against Michigan State, but Spartans expect dogfight
East Lansing — It might seem odd to consider a matchup a rivalry when one team has dominated the series.
In fact, when it comes to Michigan State and Oakland on the basketball court, dominant might not describe it accurately. In 19 meetings, the Spartans have won every time. Not exactly the makings of what many believe a rivalry should be.
Still, as No. 11 Michigan State heads to Detroit to take on Oakland on Tuesday night at Little Caesars Arena, the Spartans understand they’re likely in for a fight, as has been the case more times than coach Tom Izzo would probably prefer.
“There’s been a couple games where they haven't been close,” Izzo said, “but the majority of the games have been dogfights. So it gives us a chance to play a good mid-major and to say there's good players everywhere.”
A quick glance through the results over the years bears that out as Michigan State (9-2) has had its share of blowout victories. But the Spartans won by one at The Palace in 2010 and then won by just four in the same venue in 2013.
But it was the game in December of 2015 at The Palace, the former home of the Detroit Pistons, that still stings for Oakland coach Greg Kampe and is on the mind of Izzo as he prepares his team to play for the first time since a Dec. 11 victory over Penn State.
Michigan State entered that game undefeated and ranked as the No. 1 team in the country. However, the Spartans were without Denzel Valentine, who had undergone knee surgery that week as Oakland took advantage, taking a 50-37 lead at halftime behind the play of standout guard Kay Felder.
Late in the game, with Michigan State up two, Felder drove to the hoop and was fouled in the final seconds as his running layup hung on the rim for what seemed like an eternity. The shot didn’t fall and instead of a three-point play to perhaps win the game, Felder made two free throws to send it to overtime.
Michigan State then took over as Bryn Forbes hit the last of his seven 3-pointers on his way to 32 points to put the game away for the Spartans.
“I don’t know what to say,” 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.”
Felder finished with 37, but the Spartans still managed to come away with a win, one that reminded them there are no easy nights in the matchup between schools that are roughly 80 miles apart and led by a pair of coaches — Izzo and Kampe — who have been around as long as anyone and who hold each other in the highest regard.
“He's done some incredible things down there,” Izzo said of Kampe. “I’ll have Denzel call and let them know that we were No. 1 in the country and went to overtime. I mean, I'm not saying that hiding. I'm saying that because I have respect for what he's done – him as a coach and respect for his team.”
That meeting also cemented the fact this game carries a little more weight than other nonconference matchups.
“Yeah, I feel like it means more,” Michigan State senior Gabe Brown said. “When we play Oakland, I feel like it means more because Coach Kampe and Coach Izz, they’re gonna say they're best friends, but at the end of the day, they’re rivals, too. Oakland, I remember, one year took them to overtime and won by (one) another year. So Oakland is a very good team.”
When it comes to this season’s matchup, a close game could be a safe bet. Oakland (7-3) has a road win over Oklahoma State and is led by Marquette transfer forward Jamal Cain, who is averaging 21.2 points and 10.5 rebounds a game, and guard Jalen Moore, who is scoring 13.7 points a game and handing out 6.9 assists.
“Oakland does a lot of good things,” Brown said. “They’ve got a lot of great players that came back, especially the point guard who was ranked like in the top three in the country for assists last year. So, they’ve got a very good point guard, got a couple of transfers and Coach Kampe has always been a good coach. He recruited me when I was in high school, so he always been a good coach. I’ve always watched Oakland and they’re a tough team.”
What’s different about this Golden Grizzlies team, however, is the fact they’re defending. While still not among the nation’s best, they’re far more efficient than they have been in the past, holding teams to 40.7% shooting, including 27% from 3-point range.
Using a zone defense that has teams scrambling, it has the Spartans’ attention.
“They have very good length,” Izzo said. “They get their hands on balls and that has really helped them. What makes it a little more unique is they are not giving up as many points. They are running this funky zone that is part 1-3-1, part 3-2, part 2-3 and maybe part nobody knows, including Greg. But it’s effective. So we are going to spend a lot of time on that to figure that out.”
It’s the third time the game will be played at Little Caesars Arena, as the game typically alternates from East Lansing to a neutral site, which had been The Palace before things shifted to Detroit in 2017. It’s a series that benefits both teams and will likely not be going away anytime soon.
“I think it's a good test for us,” Izzo said. “It’s a chance to get us in Detroit a lot. … It’s really been a win-win-win.”
Oakland at No. 11 Michigan State
► Tip-off: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Little Caesars Arena, Detroit
► TV/radio: ESPN+, Channel 20/WJR 760, WXYT 1270
► Records: Oakland 7-3; Michigan State 9-2
► Outlook: Michigan State has not played since Dec. 11 while Oakland has been off since Dec. 7. … This is the 20th meeting between the teams with MSU winning all 19 previous matchups. … Oakland junior point guard Jalen Moore is tied for ninth in school history with 321 career assists.