EAST LANSING, Mich.—Faced with its second top-10 matchup in five days, No. 3 Michigan State used the same blueprint to run an ACC contender out of the gym from the tip.
In just the third top-5 matchup in the Breslin Center’s history, the Spartans jumped out to a 31-11 lead in the first ten minutes and powered their way to an 81-63 victory Thursday night over No. 5 Notre Dame. With a raucous home crowd at its back, a deep bench and a balanced offensive approach, the Spartans (6-1) showed why they have been such a popular national title pick early in the season.
“When they come at you with fresh bodies, they just keep coming at you, and it takes a toll,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said.
Cassius Winston hit a three on the first shot of the game just 19 seconds into the ACC-Big Ten Challenge matchup, breaking the only tie on the day. From then on, the home crowd, fueled by the rowdy Izzone, played a major part in keeping the Fighting Irish (6-1) out of it.
“My worst fear was them getting off to great starts because when they do that in this building it’s a heck of an uphill climb, and they really got off to a great start,” Brey said. “As much as you try and practice transition and defense, you can’t simulate how they get down the floor… They’re as good as anybody in the country.”
The first ten minutes might have been the Spartans’ best ten in years. They shot a sizzling 69 percent from the field in that stretch, which included a stretch of three straight Josh Langford midrange jumpers. Langford’s 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting in the first half led either team. He scored 17 on the day.
“We just wanted to go out there and play Michigan State basketball,” Langford said. “We’ve really been doing a great job with just growing in what we need to get better at. We wanted to go out there and do our jobs, and that’s what we did.”
To Notre Dame’s credit, the Fighting Irish whittled their 46-26 halftime deficit all the way down to seven after coming out more physical out of the break.
“I love (Matt) Farrell and (Bonzie) Colson,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “Those guys are great players and like great players do, they bounce back. We made five turnovers in the first six, seven minutes after doing a hell of a job the first half, took a couple bad shots and they bounced right back in.”
But Winston (17 points, seven assists) continued his offensive success that led to winning the Victory Bracket MVP award at the PK80 Invitational over the weekend. He hit three three-pointers in under four minutes late in the half to put the game out of hand for good.
“To our credit and our crowd’s credit, they got us back in the game and it was great down the stretch,” Izzo said after defeating back-to-back Top-10 opponents in the regular season for the first time in his 23-year career.
Winston and Langford’s development took some pressure off Miles Bridges, who had 14 points for the game on 6-of-15 shooting. While he didn’t have the eye-popping offensive numbers fans have come to expect from the Flint native, Tom Izzo complemented his superstar’s ability to pass the ball throughout the game.
“What Miles gives us and will give us, you don’t always see just in his stats,” Izzo said. “He threw two of the nicest, simplest passes to Cassius (Winston) tonight that were game changers. That was two three-pointers, six points. I don’t think Miles could have done that last year.”
One of the Spartans’ only weak points was defending without fouling, especially in the early second half. Freshman Jaren Jackson, Jr. played only 14 minutes due to foul trouble. His absence meant better scoring opportunities for Irish forward Bonzie Colson (17 points), which opened up the team’s offense.
“I asked him to guard an All-American in his sixth, seventh college game, and one that can move,” Izzo said. “I thought Jaren was… he really got us going, if you want the truth. His defense, the way he guarded [Colson], the blocked shots, the way he ran, he did a good job in the middle of the zone.”
The Spartans crashed the boards early and often, grabbing 12 of the first 13 rebounds in the contest and doubling up the Fighting Irish for the game, 42-21. Every player but Langford grabbed at least two rebounds for the Spartans, who showed their vast physical improvements since giving up 25 offensive boards against Duke three weeks ago.
“We’ve said it since the day that I got to this place, (you win) because of your defense and your rebounding,” Izzo said. “At the end of the day, even though they shot 44 percent, I thought our defense and rebounding won us the game.”
Notre Dame had trouble throughout the game controlling Michigan State’s fast break, which outscored Notre Dame’s break 19-5. The transition game is a lethal weapon that can take the Spartans to another level if they continue rebounding well.
“What really helps is when you defend and rebound well and people aren’t getting offensive rebounds,” Izzo said. “They had five offensive rebounds. You can really push it. I thought that was the difference, when you defend, you rebound and you run. That’s been a staple of our program since the day I got here.”
While the Spartans will remain at home, they won’t get much of a break after defeating the Irish and North Carolina in the same week. Nebraska comes to the Breslin Center on Sunday in an early December Big Ten battle.
The scheduling oddity is part of the Big Ten’s efforts to spread out the conference season due to pushing the Big Ten tournament up one full week in the spring. Tipoff is scheduled for 4:30 p.m. Sunday.