East Lansing — Michigan State wasn’t perfect on Saturday against Southern Utah, but it got a win, and that’s saying something this week.
The third-ranked Spartans had four players score in double figures to break away late for an 88-63 victory at Breslin Center, their eighth straight.
Michigan State was pushed throughout the game, but it found a way to win, something that proved tougher for others ranked in the top 10. It’s been a wild week in college basketball, and it hasn’t exactly been kind to the top-ranked teams.
Earlier Saturday, No. 1 Duke lost at Boston College, its first loss of the season, becoming the fourth top-10 team to lose this week. No. 5 Florida lost to Loyola (Chicago) on Wednesday and No. 2 Kansas lost to Washington on Thursday. Those came after No. 9 Notre Dame lost at home to Ball State on Tuesday.
“All in all we played OK, not great,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said on Saturday. “But I know this — we played a lot better than five other top 10 teams that didn’t and got beat by unranked teams this week.”
The Spartans (9-1, 2-0 Big Ten) avoided that thanks to a balanced offensive attack and a second-half surge that put away the Thunderbirds, led by second-year coach and Fowler, Mich., native Todd Simon.
Miles Bridges had 17 points and 11 rebounds while Nick Ward scored 17 points, grabbed six rebounds and blocked three shots. Jaren Jackson Jr. added 17 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks while Cassius Winston had 15 points for the Spartans, who don’t play again until taking on Oakland Dec. 16 at Little Caesars Arena.
“I thought this was Miles’ best game,” Izzo said. “That all sounds a little crazy because 17 points was one of his lowest production of all last year. If you look at him taking it to the basket, you look at him rebounding, you look at him with six assists, 11 rebounds. He got some offensive rebounds. Defense was a lot better. Starting to see the real Miles now and that, that is exciting.”
Tom Izzo addresses the media after Michigan State beats Southern Utah. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Bridges and company got things going with just more than 12 minutes to play after Southern Utah had cut the Michigan State lead to 56-51. From that point, the Spartans outscored the Thunderbirds, 32-12, over the final 12 minutes.
“Getting down that stretch we felt like that if we could get a few breaks, a few shots to fall, we could make it interesting down the stretch,” Simon said. “We knew that at any given time they could go 10, 15-0 on you.”
That final push from the Spartans eliminated a solid outing from Southern Utah (5-4), which was 11-for-26 from 3-point range and had four players score in double figures. Dre Marin, Jadon Cohee and Jacob Calloway each scored 12 points while Ivan Madunic added 10 points for Southern Utah.
Michigan State used a balanced offensive attack in the first half as eight players scored to help the Spartans take a 42-30 lead headed to the locker room.
A 15-2 run early in the half turned a 9-8 Michigan State lead in a 24-10 advantage as Winston hit back-to-back 3-pointers followed by a Bridges drive to the basket. Southern Utah was able to stay within striking distance thanks to six 3-pointers. Winston matched his career high with five 3-pointers while Jackson’s 13 rebounds also matched a career high.
Michigan State controlled the glass, outrebounding Southern Utah, 49-34, and scoring 18 second-chance points.
“That’s just the signs of winning teams,” Winston said. “I think we learned how to win games, learn the plays we got to make, learn how to buckle down on the stops and things like that. Those are going to be huge for us to win those key games down the road.”
Down the road could also come with a No. 1 ranking. The losses by Duke and Kansas could pave the way for Michigan State to move into the top spot for next week’s rankings, though unbeaten Villanova, which is ranked No. 4, could be in that mix, too.
The No. 1 ranking, however, isn’t something the Spartans would shy away from.
“Yeah, I love that bullseye,” Izzo said. “That’s a dream come true. You always want your team to be ranked high. If you can’t handle that … and I do want to see if we can handle it. So, if we are blessed with that, that’d be great and if we’re not, I’m going to have a chip on my shoulder either way. So it doesn’t matter to me, but I don’t know how they’ll feel. I think this team has to learn how to handle all these things.”
That includes taking everyone’s best shot, as the Spartans did on Saturday.
“I think people just think we should beat everybody by 25 points,” Izzo said. “I mean, they’re either on Dial-A-Clue or drugs, you know, something. There’s some good teams out there, there’s some people that play hard. When you are ranked high, everybody is coming at you. I mean, Duke’s had a lot more close games than we have against some, and that’s just the way it is.”