Michigan State has looked like a dominant team quite often in 13 seasons under Tom Izzo, appearing in four Final Fours and winning a national championship.
But they’ve saved some of their best work for their games with Penn State.
The eighth-ranked Spartans (19-2, 7-1 Big Ten) look to continue the best start in school history while trying for their 17th straight regular-season victory against the Nittany Lions on Saturday at the Bryce Jordan Center.
Izzo has been leading Michigan State since 1995, and his Spartans split their series against Penn State in his first season. Since then, the Spartans have topped the Nittany Lions (10-10, 2-6) in 16 straight regular season games, winning by an average on 18.0 points.
Their lone loss to Penn State since 1997 came in the 2001 Big Ten tournament, when the Spartans - No. 2 in the nation - were upset 65-63.
Michigan State had never opened 19-2, but did so on Wednesday after an ugly 51-41 victory against Illinois. The Spartans shot just 37.2 percent for the game, failed to make a 3-pointer for the first time since 1999 and had only 20 points at halftime.
“I guess you have to be excited about a win, but I’m disappointed in the way we played,” Izzo said. “It was a win, not a very pretty one, but a win is a win.”
Senior Drew Neitzel had 15 points in the win over the Illini, his fourth straight game with at least 15. Neitzel, a preseason All-American, averaged 18.1 points last season and was the Big Ten’s fourth-leading scorer, but has seen his average drop four points this season with better offensive options emerging for the Spartans.
One of those options—Raymar Morgan—was around last season, but the 6-foot-7 forward has made huge strides from his freshman to sophomore season. Morgan is tied for fourth in the league with 16.3 points per game while shooting an impressive 57.0 percent.
One hallmark of an Izzo-coached team has been its ability to rebound, and this season’s team is no exception. The Spartans have been in the top 25 in the nation in rebounding margin in 11 of Izzo’s 12 seasons, and currently are sixth in the nation, paced by Goran Suton’s 8.5 per game.
Penn State has been in a freefall since losing its best player for the season in a loss to Wisconsin on Jan. 15.
Senior Geary Claxton, one of the Big Ten’s top 10 scorers and rebounders for each of the past two seasons, tore his ACL against the Badgers, effectively ending his college career. The Nittany Lions had been 10-5 heading into that game, but lost 80-55 and have dropped four more by an average of 16.3 points.
They’ve lost six straight overall.
Junior Jamelle Cornley is averaging 12.1 points and 5.9 rebounds, but he’s had only 9.7 points and 4.0 rebounds per game in his last three, drawing double teams more consistently with Claxton out.
He had only five points in Penn State’s 68-56 loss to Ohio State on Tuesday, as the Nittany Lions made just 26.7 percent of their second-half shots.
“In the second half we turned the ball over and couldn’t make a basket,” coach Ed DeChellis said. “We just could not make a shot.”
Penn State has lost 12 consecutive home games to ranked opponents by an average of 16.3 points.