Michigan State knew coming into the season it had one All-American on its roster in guard Drew Neitzel. It hopes to have found another in Raymar Morgan.
Morgan and the 10th-ranked Spartans look to avoid falling to a ranked team for the second time in three games when they host No. 24 North Carolina State on Wednesday night as part of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
A highly sought-after recruit coming out of high school in Ohio, Morgan averaged 11.7 points and 5.2 rebounds in starting 25 games for Michigan State last season as a freshman. Five games into his sophomore campaign, he is leading the Spartans (4-1) with 17.4 points per game and is second with 8.4 rebounds per game.
The 6-foot-7 forward’s emergence has allowed Neitzel (14.6 ppg, 4.6 apg), the Big Ten’s leading returning scorer, to concentrate more on getting others involved.
Morgan was named the Big Ten co-player of the week after the Spartans’ first two games with double-doubles in both. In his most recent game, Morgan scored 20 points on 8-of-10 shooting in a 75-71 win over Oakland on Saturday.
On the season, Morgan is shooting 60 percent, up from 49 percent as a freshman.
“I think he’s improved his shooting a lot. He’s more comfortable on the perimeter,” said Spartans coach Tom Izzo. “I’ve been very, very, very pleased with (his) progress so far.”
Morgan’s worst performance of the season, however, came in Michigan State’s only game versus a ranked opponent. He had season lows of 10 points and two rebounds in a 68-63 loss to No. 2 UCLA on Nov. 20.
The Spartans gave up 22 offensive rebounds in that defeat, and allowed another 20 to Oakland. Center Goran Suton did grab 20 boards in the win, including 11 offensive, as Michigan State outrebounded the opposition (41-33) for the fourth time in five games.
However, it was not a particularly impressive bounce-back victory for Michigan State, which never led by double digits against an Oakland team which entered with a 2-2 record.
“We’re an out-of-sync basketball team, and I don’t know when that’s going to change,” Izzo said. “We’ve got some guys who can shoot and some guys who can defend. We don’t have a lot of guys who can do both right now.”
Izzo’s team will not get a break Wednesday, facing a North Carolina State squad coming off its best win of the season.
The Wolfpack (4-1) defeated then-No. 20 Villanova 69-68 on Sunday in the Old Spice Classic championship game in Lake Buena Vista, Fla.
A 65-63 loss to New Orleans a week earlier had knocked N.C. State out of the Top 25, but with three wins in four days in Florida - including two by a total of three points - the Wolfpack are back in the rankings.
“This was a great tournament for us,” said N.C. State coach Sidney Lowe. “I think we grew a lot in a four-day, five-day period, just being away and just us together down here in this event.”
Freshman big man J.J. Hickson has been the star for the Wolfpack. After starting the first two games and going 22-for-30 from the field for 53 points, Lowe curiously moved Hickson to the bench. But Hickson has remained effective, shooting 14-for-18 in the three Old Spice Classic games, averaging 12.3 points and 6.7 rebounds.
“Right now I’m trying to win ball games,” Lowe said. “You saw it (against Villanova) - we didn’t really care who got it done.”
While Hickson’s 18.0-point average leads the team, the Wolfpack have been balanced. Three players are averaging 10.8 points - Brandon Costner, Courtney Fells and Gavin Grant - and they have taken turns stepping up. Costner scored 21 in the team’s win against South Carolina, while Fells had 21 against Villanova.
Grant scored 15 against the Wildcats, including two free throws at the end to seal the win.
North Carolina State now looks to end Michigan State’s run of consecutive non-conference home wins at 29—sixth-longest in the country.
The Wolfpack are 5-1 against the Spartans, including a 69-58 win in the first round of the 2002 NCAA tournament in the most recent meeting.