Texas is looking to continue its trend of stepping up to big challenges. Michigan State hopes to finally start one.
Neither coach is happy with how his team has played lately, but one of them will feel a lot better after the fifth-ranked Longhorns face the No. 19 Spartans on Saturday at the Toyota Center in Houston.
One test in which coach Tom Izzo and Michigan State (7-2) have excelled in recent years is facing Rick Barnes and Texas (9-1). The Spartans are looking to beat the Longhorns for a third straight season, having won 63-61 in 2006 and 78-72 last year.
Even though Michigan State clearly hasn’t been as good as Texas overall this season, neither has performed well recently.
While Izzo’s squad struggled to put away The Citadel on Wednesday in a 79-65 win, Barnes saw his team clinging to a one-point lead at the half against winless Texas Southern on Tuesday before winning 88-72.
“You should have two very mad coaches,” Izzo said. “I saw that Texas struggled against an 0-9 team and was up one at halftime. And our team has to grow up a little bit. We should have a misery-loves-company phone call.”
The Spartans are unlikely to get away with another subpar performance Saturday, but that’s the only kind they’ve had against quality opponents this season.
Michigan State was embarrassed in its only matchup with a ranked team, falling to No. 1 North Carolina 98-63 on Dec. 3. The Spartans could only split their other two games against teams from major conferences, beating Oklahoma State on Nov. 28 a day after getting no closer than 15 points in the final five minutes of an 80-62 loss to Maryland.
“I think it’s great we’re playing a very good team in a hostile environment,” Izzo said. “We’ve got some young guys who need to step forward and they are not stepping forward right now on a consistent basis. … I think we’ll find out a lot about our team.”
Barnes already has learned the Longhorns are capable of playing well against top-caliber competition. A win Saturday would be their third this month against a ranked team - they beat UCLA on Dec. 4 and defeated Villanova five days later - and their only loss came by one point to then-No. 8 Notre Dame on Nov. 25.
However, neither of Texas’ two most recent performances were nearly as good. After trailing in the second half of an 81-73 victory over Texas State last Saturday, the Longhorns were outrebounded for a second straight game Tuesday and allowed Texas Southern to shoot 57.7 percent from the field.
“I look at our team tonight, and I don’t think we’re anywhere near as good a basketball team as we can be,” Barnes said. “At some point, it has to come together.”
One thing that has is A.J. Abrams’ game. The Longhorns senior guard is averaging 28.5 points over the last four games while hitting 18-of-33 from 3-point range.
Abrams totaled 46 points in the last two meetings with Michigan State, but the Longhorns were held to a combined 37.1 percent from the field.
Raymar Morgan starred offensively in those games for the Spartans, scoring 18 points in each. He’s averaging a team-high 16.9 points this season after scoring 26 on 11-of-12 shooting Wednesday.
Chris Allen, averaging 16.8 points with 14 3-pointers in four games this month, went 1-of-6 from beyond the arc against The Citadel.
“If we play like this in Texas, it’s not going to be pretty,” Allen said. “We’ve got to refocus. We’ve got to get ready. We can’t afford to do this again.”