Michigan State coach Tom Izzo lived up to his reputation of testing his squad with a difficult non-conference schedule, though the season didn’t begin as he may have hoped.
Draymond Green has been a major reason for the team’s recent surge.
The 21st-ranked Spartans seek their ninth consecutive victory when they host Bowling Green on Saturday night.
Michigan State (8-2) began the season by suffering two defeats in the national spotlight, falling 67-55 to then-No. 1 North Carolina in the Carrier Classic on Nov. 11 before losing 74-69 to then-No. 6 Duke on Nov. 15 at Madison Square Garden.
The Spartans won their next seven games by an average of 25.7 points before last Saturday’s 74-67 upset of then-No. 23 Gonzaga on the Bulldogs’ home floor.
Green was named Big Ten player of the week after going 11 of 13 from the field in a career-best 34-point performance in the victory. His four 3-pointers - on five attempts - matched a career high.
Green is averaging a team-high 16.7 points, and his 9.7 rebounds per game are second in the Big Ten behind only Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger.
“His leadership has taken a step forward,” Izzo said. “Even though he was a captain last year, I’m not sure he felt it was his team. He should feel that way now.”
With Green leading the way the Spartans have entered the AP Poll for the first time this season, though Izzo contends his team has a long way to go in order to contend in a conference currently featuring six ranked teams - tied with the Big East for most in the nation.
“We’re making some progress,” Izzo said. “We’re not what we need to be (when Big Ten play begins). We are making some strides, but don’t fool yourself - we’ve got a lot of work left.”
Bowling Green’s last road victory over a ranked opponent came in East Lansing, an 81-79 win Dec. 18, 1989, when the Spartans were ranked No. 25.
The Falcons (5-4) stayed close for a half Dec. 4, 2010, at the Breslin Center, but Michigan State pulled away in the final 20 minutes. The Spartans outscored Bowling Green 49-20 after halftime in a 74-39 win as Green scored 10 points and pulled down a game-high 12 rebounds.
Falcons coach Louis Orr knows his team is in for another tough battle.
“They have one of the best all-around players in the Big Ten - maybe one of the best all-around players in the country - in Draymond Green,” Orr said. “He does everything. I’ve talked about a stat-sheet stuffer. Scoring, assists, rebounds, steals. The ball goes through him a great deal.”
The Falcons were outrebounded 30-25 in last Saturday’s 82-79 loss at Valparaiso, and Orr knows his team - 1-3 when it’s edged on the boards - needs to improve in that aspect against the Spartans.
Michigan State ranks sixth in the country with a plus-11.0 rebound differential per game.
“You know it’s going to be a game where you have to match their physicality,” Orr said. “They’ve always been a strong rebounding team.
“It’s a game that will hopefully bring the best out of us.”
A’uston Calhoun, the Falcons’ leading scorer at 12.4 points per game, had 25 against Valpo, while Jordon Crawford added 22 and Scott Thomas 14.
In last season’s matchup with the Spartans, Calhoun scored one point in 17 minutes off the bench - missing all seven field-goal attempts - and Thomas led Bowling Green with 11 points.