While Michigan State has an excellent chance to be the No. 1 team in the country come Monday, the focus is still on improving so they can be No. 1 following the NCAA tournament.
Fresh off their hard-fought victory over the current top-ranked team, the No. 2 Spartans try to cement their ascent to the top spot Friday night when they meet Columbia in the first of their two home games as part of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic.
Coach Tom Izzo's veteran-laden team is on the short list of favorites to cut down the nets in Arlington, Texas, and needed all of its guile and skill to hold off youthful Kentucky 78-74 in Chicago on Tuesday night. Izzo's annual rugged non-conference schedule paid early dividends as Keith Appling had 22 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, fellow senior Adreian Payne scored 15 and the Spartans survived blowing a 13-point lead in the second half to the Wildcats and their highly regarded freshman class.
"I keep reiterating: They're going to get a lot better," Izzo said of Kentucky, perhaps sensing a potential rematch this spring with far more at stake. "But I honestly believe so will we."
Sophomore Gary Harris had his second straight 20-point game for the Spartans (2-0), who may have a tougher time guarding against a letdown than guarding players on Columbia (1-1). Michigan State has won 73 consecutive non-conference home games against unranked opponents since an 81-76 defeat to Toledo on Dec. 30, 2002, and 19 in a row at the Breslin Center against non-Big Ten foes since a 67-55 loss to then-No. 18 Texas on Dec. 22, 2010.
"We want to be No. 1 at the end of the season," Appling said, "Not the beginning."
Michigan State will also host Portland on Monday as part of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic before traveling to Brooklyn, N.Y., to play Virginia Tech and either Oklahoma or Seton Hall.
Columbia will be hard-pressed to bounce back from a discouraging 71-70 home loss to Manhattan on Tuesday night in which they squandered a four-point lead with four seconds to play.
The Lions were outrebounded 33-31, something that does not bode well considering Michigan State will likely be focused on controlling the glass. The Spartans gave up 24 second-chance points on 18 offensive rebounds to Kentucky while being beaten 44-32 on the boards Tuesday. That was a stark reversal to a season-opening win over McNeese State in which they amassed a 66-29 advantage.
Six-foot-11 junior center Cory Osetkowski, who averages 12.5 points and 7.0 rebounds, will be Columbia's best hope of trying to contain Payne and Branden Dawson in the paint and on the glass. Dawson is averaging 10.5 rebounds, including 4.5 offensive boards.
Columbia, playing Michigan State for the first time, has not beaten a ranked opponent since an 85-75 win over then-No. 19 Rutgers on Dec. 2, 1976.