Michigan State and Gonzaga take pride in consistently playing two of the toughest non-conference schedules in the country. This season is no different.
Each team should receive a stiff early-season test when the second-ranked Spartans host the Bulldogs on Tuesday night.
Two of the nation’s most successful programs will meet for the fourth time, and first since Gonzaga posted a 109-106 triple-overtime victory at the Maui Invitational on Nov. 22, 2005.
While Gonzaga is in a rebuilding mode with seven newcomers and three redshirts, it didn’t downgrade its non-conference schedule.
In addition to the Spartans, the Bulldogs face Wake Forest and either Arizona or Wisconsin in Maui next week, then No. 9 Duke, No. 17 Oklahoma and 23rd-ranked Illinois before West Coast Conference play begins. They also visit Memphis on Feb. 6.
“That schedule has always served us well,” said Gonzaga coach Mark Few, whose program has won nine straight WCC regular-season titles and made 11 consecutive trips to the NCAA tournament. “Hopefully this year will not be different.”
Michigan State, meanwhile, has a game against Florida, a national title game rematch against sixth-ranked North Carolina and a trip to third-ranked Texas before tackling an always-grueling Big Ten schedule.
Though the Spartans return seven of their top nine scorers from last season’s national runner-up team, they’ll likely need to give a more complete effort than they did in Friday’s 97-58 season-opening victory over Florida Gulf Coast.
Michigan State shot 46.5 percent and outrebounded the Eagles 54-34 but started sluggish, turning the ball over four times in less than 4 minutes, and didn’t take the lead until the 15:22 mark of the first half.
The Spartans expect Chris Allen (groin), Raymar Morgan (ankle) and Delvon Roe (concussion) - all key contributors - to be healthier for this contest than they were during the opener.
“We had everybody in uniform, but we didn’t have everybody back,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I don’t think we’re near where we’re going to be, but we have to get better or we’re going to be in trouble.”
Reigning Big Ten player of the year Kalin Lucas had 21 points, Durrell Summers added 17 and 6-foot-8, 280-pound Derrick Nix set a school record for a freshman in his debut with 14 rebounds in 15 minutes.
Lucas, who averaged 14.7 points and 4.6 assists last season as a sophomore, is anxious for Tuesday’s test.
“Now, we get Gonzaga here,” Lucas said. “I can’t wait!”
Michigan State is 2-1 against Gonzaga and has won 33 straight home games overall, and 40 consecutive non-conference contests at the Breslin Center.
That history - and Gonzaga’s overall inexperience - could make this a daunting task for the Bulldogs, who defeated Mississippi Valley State 92-74 in their season opener on Saturday.
“To play them on their home floor this early is quite a task but I think we look at it as an opportunity,” Few told the school’s official Web site of Michigan State.
Senior and all-WCC guard Matt Bouldin averaged 13.6 points last season and had a game-high 22 while shooting 7 of 13 in the opener. He’s the lone returning starter from a 28-6 team that lost to North Carolina in the regional semifinals.
“I think this year’s team is going to need me more as a leader,” Bouldin said.
Junior Steven Gray scored 16 points with seven assists Saturday, while freshman Elias Harris had 18 points and 7-footer Robert Sacre added 17 with nine rebounds.
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