EAST LANSING, Mich. — Playing a non-conference schedule as difficult as the one Michigan State is in the midst of comes with its share of risk.
Losing games can sometimes become contagious, and the early slate has been and will continue to be a challenge. Start sliding in the wrong direction and it can send a team into a spiral that is difficult to pull out of.
However, win a couple — especially early in the stretch — and things start to look not nearly as daunting. And, as the Spartans have done with victories over Kentucky and Villanova — and even in the one-point loss to Gonzaga — a certain confidence starts to emerge.
For Michigan State, a battle-tested team is taking shape, as the No. 12 Spartans begin play Thursday in the Phil Knight Invitational in Portland against No. 18 Alabama.
“Actually, that's kind of what we expected,” said senior Joey Hauser, who scored 23 in the win over Kentucky and 13 against Villanova. “That's why we play a schedule like this — to play these tough games. And being in close games, making big shots and those things are all going to help us down the road. So, the good thing is that we can take it going forward.”
Michigan State (3-1) will surely have its share of tough games over four days in Portland.
The matchup with Alabama, which tips off at 10:30 p.m. on Thanksgiving, is another unique matchup. Unlike the teams the Spartans have faced to this point, Alabama is all about a frenetic pace, using its length and athleticism to get shots up as quickly as possible — primarily from 3-point range or near the basket — long-range two-pointers nearly banished from the game plan.
In fact, the Crimson Tide (4-0) took 46 3-pointers in the victory over Jacksonville State on Friday and are led by dynamic 6-foot-9 freshman Brandon Miller, who is averaging 20.3 points and 9.3 rebounds and is shooting 51.7% from 3-point range.
“The Miller kid is everybody’s No. 2 or 3 pick in the (NBA) draft,” Izzo said. “Long, athletic, can shoot threes. Some people compare him to Kevin Durant.”
Alabama is not a one-man team, though. Guard Mark Sears, a former Ohio transfer, is averaging 15.3 points and 5.5 rebounds while playing 29 minutes per game. He’s also shooting better than 40% from 3-point range, and freshman Rylan Griffen is averaging 10.3 points and 5.3 rebounds off the bench.