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December 10, 2011There was no shame or surprise in Michigan State's first two losses of the season when the Spartans opened against then-No. 1 North Carolina and No. 5 Duke.
Tonight, the Spartans head into their fourth major test of the season, marking the first time Michigan State has ventured into a hostile environment when MSU (7-2) plays at No. 23-ranked Gonzaga (5-1) at 9 p.m. (ESPN2).
Michigan State's victory over Florida State on Nov. 30 serves as the Spartans' top moment of the young season. But a victory at Gonzaga would be a major signal that the Spartans are capable of making noise in the upper division of the Big Ten.
"You are going to face games in hostile arenas eventually and the only way you can get ready for it is by going through it," said Michigan State senior Draymond Green. "We are going to have to go through it in the Big Ten so I think this is good for us.
"Going to Gonzaga will definitely be a test for us. It's time to see where we're at."
Gonzaga has beaten Washington State (89-81) and Notre Dame (73-53) at home, and lost at Illinois on Dec. 3, 82-75.
Gonzaga boasts a fine interior tandem of Robert Sacre and Elias Harris.
"Harris probably has a big dog bone right now that he is licking, probably (after) watching A.P. (Adreian Payne) tonight inside," Tom Izzo said after Wednesday's lethargic victory over Central Connecticut State. "We are going to have to play better inside."
Izzo pulled Payne less than :90 seconds into Wednesday's game. Izzo sent Derrick Nix to the scorer's table to check in for Payne after only one defensive possession. Payne was late in rotating over to help on a driving guard on CCSU's opening possession, and Izzo immediately went to the hook.
Payne failed to earn favor the rest of the night and logged only eight minutes in the game.
"Our interior defense has been pretty good (this year) but tonight (against CCSU), it wasn't," Izzo said. "That's disappointing, going into a big game."
Harris, a 6-foot-7 junior from Speyer, Germany, had 11 points and 15 rebounds in the Zags' victory over Notre Dame.
Sacre, a 7-foot senior from North Vancouver, B.C., is averaging 16.5 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. He is one of the best true centers in the country and has a nice righty jump hook, among other tools.
Izzo said the sleepy performance against CCSU would make practice "more fun" in preparation for Gonzaga.
The Bulldogs field their usual corps of skilled distance shooters. Freshman Kevin Pangos (6-1, Newmarket, Ont.) has emerged as an early-season surprise, averaging 14.3 points per game. He is the Bulldogs' second leading scorer and is shooting 47 percent from 3-point range.
Six games into the season, Pangos is now working against opposition that can use a broader volume of scouting film than the teams he surprised earlier in the year. Illinois held him to 1-of-5 from 3-point range. Izzo and MSU have been known to make good use of scouting video in the past 300 games or so.
Keith Appling and Travis Trice are quality defenders who will alternate as primary defenders on Pangos.
Also, keep an eye on Gonzaga guard David Stockton. He's the guy who looks like John Stockton, and for good reason - he's the son of the former Gonzaga Bulldog and Utah Jazz great.
Stockton (5-11, 152, Soph.) is averaging 6.7 points per game off the bench and is a sizzling 67 percent (8 of 12) from 3-point range.
The Last Meeting
Michigan State, then ranked No. 2 in the nation, edged Gonzaga 75-71 on Nov. 17, 2009 at Breslin Center.
Harris and Sacre each scored 17 as promising youngsters.
How much different did MSU look in those days? MSU, coming off a Final Four performance in Detroit, started Garrick Sherman at center on that night, although he played only 10 minute. He netted 4 points on two field goals.
Durrell Summers scored 21 points on 8-of-9 shooting, with 11 rebounds - remember those days? Izzo probably doesn't. But Izzo surely looked at that film in preparation for this game, just to see how Gonzaga tried to attack MSU from an x's and o's standpoint
Raymar Morgan scored 16 off the bench, nursing a pair of sprained ankles. Remember those days?
Green believes the Bulldogs will.
"They definitely remember that loss that had here two years ago," Green said. "They want revenge and they've been waiting on this opportunity and it's going to be a big game for them, but it's a big game for us as well."
Green Filmed Up
Green was asked about Gonzaga's interior players minutes after the CCSU game. Despite the fact that the MSU-Gonzaga game was still days away, Green already had the foundation of a scouting report on the Bulldogs' two big men.
"Harris is very physical," Green said.
Green is coming off of a challenging matchup against CCSU power forward Ken Horton, a long-armed scorer who was MVP of the Northeast Conference last year and had 17 against MSU on Wednesday night.
Harris will offer a different kind of test for Green.
"Harris is more of a force in the paint than Horton," Green said. "Harris is going to bang down low, and run the floor as well whereas Horton is more the trailer. Harris will get out and run the floor.
"Sacre is probably averaging 10 free throws a game. That's one thing that is going to be critical for us is not putting him on the free throw line, and taking it to him on our offensive end as well. That will be a big reason whether we win or lose."
Jud To Be Honored
Saturday's pre-game festivities will feature Jud Heathcote being honored by Gonzaga head coach Mark Few and Izzo.
Heathcote retired to Spokane following his coaching career that began at West Valley High School in Spokane. He coached at Washington State University as an assistant coach for seven years, was the head coach at the University of Montana or five seasons and concluded his career with the Spartans from 1977-95. Izzo was an assistant under Heathcote at MSU and succeeded him upon his retirement. A season ticket holder with the Bulldogs, Heathcote and Few meet and talk on a regular basis throughout the basketball season. Few and Izzo will present Heathcote with an autographed basketball as a token of their appreciation for his contributions to collegiate basketball.