Not many major college basketball teams play two tough nonconference games in hostile environments in the same week. But not many teams have coaches like Tom Izzo.
Izzo and No. 9 Michigan State complete a difficult stretch when they meet 20th-ranked Brigham Young in Salt Lake City on Saturday.
The Spartans (7-1) began their week by snapping Bradley’s 29-game home winning streak against nonconference opponents with a 66-61 victory on Tuesday. They trailed by as many as nine points in the second half before rallying.
“It was a huge win for us,” Izzo said. “I did not think we played great.”
The coach was wary of these two games, and the matchup with BYU (7-1) in particular. The Cougars have an experienced team that already beat then-No. 6 Louisville on Nov. 23 and lost to No. 1 North Carolina the next day in Las Vegas.
Michigan State, whose only loss was to then-No. 2 UCLA on Nov. 20, also has fourth-ranked Texas on its schedule Dec. 22.
“BYU could be as good as any team we play in a nonconference game,” Izzo said. “And as we’re starting to learn, our nonconference schedule gets better with every day that goes by, if you saw Texas (beat UCLA on Sunday).”
This is the second straight year these teams will play in an NBA arena. Michigan State won 76-61 at The Palace of Auburn Hills on Dec. 9, 2006, as Drew Neitzel scored 22 points to lead the Spartans.
“We are really excited for Saturday’s game,” BYU coach Dave Rose said. “Last year we got spanked when we played at their place. The most important thing of the game is that they are a very good team and that will help us prepare for our upcoming conference schedule.”
Neitzel had a miserable night on Tuesday, making 4 of 16 shots for 13 points. The senior guard, however, made a clutch 3-pointer that started a key late run that helped quiet Bradley’s sellout crowd.
“This is huge for us,” Neitzel said. “We knew there were going to be some ups and downs with the crowd getting into it, but we kept fighting it and made a comeback there at the end.”
The Spartans also received a major spark from freshman guard Kalin Lucas, who scored a season-high 13 points. Raymar Morgan led Michigan State with 15 points, while reserve senior center Drew Naymick came through with 10 rebounds in 20 minutes.
“To his credit, he really played well,” Izzo said about Naymick. “He even played better than his stats. I think he was a big part of that win.”
BYU has won two straight since the loss to North Carolina, including a 72-57 victory over Weber State on Wednesday. Sam Burgess scored 16 points and Trent Plaisted, Lee Cummard and Jonathan Tavernari all added 14.
“Trent was phenomenal, Lee was steady and Sam gave us a big boost of energy in the second half,” Rose said.
Plaisted, who scored 23 points in last year’s game against Michigan State, will be the primary concern for the Spartans. The 6-foot-11 center is averaging 17.6 points, including a season-high 24-point performance against Tyler Hansbrough in the loss to the Tar Heels.