Michigan State coach Tom Izzo hasn’t forgotten how it felt to watch North Carolina roll through his team in last season’s national championship game and put a damper on the Spartans’ thrilling run through the NCAA tournament.
But Izzo the loss won’t serve as motivation when the No. 9 Spartans travel to face the 10th-ranked Tar Heels on Tuesday night in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.
“I won’t use it at all because we got beat by 100,” he said. “It was close to 100 it seemed like anyway when I was sitting there. They’re a different team and we’re a different team in some ways.”
Izzo and the Spartans (5-1) can only hope that new year-new team approach leads to a new result, too.
Twice, Michigan State and North Carolina (6-1) met at Detroit’s Ford Field last season. And twice, the Tar Heels walked away with lopsided victories, the first a 35-point win in last year’s Challenge.
Then, after the Spartans beat top seeds Louisville and Connecticut to reach the final game in a run that galvanized the economically battered state of Michigan, North Carolina jumped to a 24-point first-half lead and never looked back in an 89-72 victory.
It’s a moment that lingers with the players whether Izzo brings it up or not.
The Spartans suffered their first loss against Florida on Friday night in the Legends Classic in Atlantic City, N.J. But junior guard Chris Allen said the Spartans spent “about the last 10 minutes” of the next night’s lopsided win against Massachusetts talking about the rematch with the Tar Heels.
“That loss is still there I guess because it was in Detroit, my hometown,” Spartans point guard Kalin Lucas said afterward. “It was my fans, everybody was there. We got beat pretty bad. We got embarrassed both times.
“We can’t wait. We can’t wait to play this game.”
While Lucas leads a veteran group, the Tar Heels look very different from the team that won the program’s fifth NCAA championship. Four-year star Tyler Hansbrough is gone, as are Ty Lawson, Wayne Ellington and Danny Green.
Left behind is a group built around senior Deon Thompson (team-high 17.7 points per game), sophomore Ed Davis and fifth-year senior Marcus Ginyard, who missed most of last year with a foot injury. These Tar Heels are still trying to establish their own identity in the post-Hansbrough era, mixing in talented but unproven newcomers in hopes of finding a cohesive unit.
For them, facing the experienced Spartans will be a measuring-stick moment.
“They’ll be fired up, but I think we will be also,” North Carolina coach Roy Williams said after earning his 600th career victory Sunday night against Nevada. “If they beat us, we’re not going to give them any trophies, and if we beat them, we’re not going to get another one. It’s a regular-season game and we’re going to try to play as hard as we can.”
The early results have been mixed. The Tar Heels beat a ranked Ohio State team in New York two weeks ago only to lose to Syracuse by double figures the next night. They’ve also had some trouble in putting teams away after building big leads and they struggled to beat Nevada at home Sunday night.
In an example of the Spartans’ edge in experience, Thompson and Davis are the only two returning Tar Heels who played at least 10 minutes in the championship game, while sophomore point guard Larry Drew II—Lawson’s successor—played just 4.
By contrast, Michigan State has seven players who played at least 12 minutes.
“I’m really looking forward to this game, I really am,” Izzo said. “I think it’s gotten a lot of exposure and deservedly so. Both teams I don’t think have proven themselves yet. We haven’t earned our ranking and maybe they haven’t proven themselves yet totally. … It’ll be a good early test to see what we’ve got to work on.”
AP Basketball Writer Dan Gelston in Atlantic City, N.J., and AP Sports Writer Joedy McCreary in Chapel Hill, N.C., contributed to this report.