A win or loss against No. 1 Duke (2-0) in the Champions Classic will have little bearing on whether Michigan State proves to be worthy of its national championship aspirations next spring.
But beating an elite opponent at a premier early-season event has the potential to be an important step for a team learning to win on a national stage.
“We’ve got to continue to grow, which is what we are trying to do,” Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo said. “It’s why we play these games, it’s why we get these opportunities. But you’ve also got to win these games. We’ve won some, but not enough.”
Michigan State and Duke each possess a 3-3 record in the six-year history of the Champions Classic. The Blue Devils are the only team Michigan State hasn’t beaten in the event.
“I told my team in our first meeting on Saturday morning that winning the game does not accomplish any of our goals,” Izzo said. “And losing the game does not ruin any of our goals. But learning how to win big games on big stages is really what you want do if you are in programs like this.
“Let’s face it, they’ve done a better job of it than we have.”
Duke owns an 11-2 advantage against Michigan State during the Izzo era. Most of those games have been decided by 10 points or less, and in the majority of those meetings Duke has had an advantage in talent, as was the case a year ago when a short-handed Michigan State team dropped a nine-point decision to the Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor in the ACC Big Ten Challenge.
Looking back at that meeting, Izzo could find no fault the effort of his ballclub on a night where 6-6 Kenny Goins started at center and played 26 minutes total. But Michigan State’s Hall of Fame Coach isn’t interested in moral victories.
“Playing well is not where we’re at now,” Izzo said. “This isn’t about trying to play well. This is about trying to win games. I do think we grew up a lot considering the travel and what we went through last year. We went down and competed very well for 35 minutes of that game.”
Michigan State’s performance at Duke in the ACC Big Ten Challenge represented a significant step in the right direction from the team’s lopsided defeat at the hands of Kentucky in last year’s Champions Classic.
Michigan State’s 69-48 loss to Kentucky last November was the worst loss for the Spartans in the history of the event. Looking back, Izzo openly admits that the Champions Classic stage was too big for a team as young as the Spartans had a year ago.
“I’m not sure we as a team were ready for that game last year,” Izzo said. “That was one of the more talented Kentucky teams. We are kind of facing teams at the wrong time. I looked at Kentucky yesterday, and think they’ve got a long way to go.”
This year’s Duke team has as much if not more talent than Kentucky a year ago with the return of senior Grayson Allen and the addition of superstar freshman Marvin Bagley, who is averaging 24 points and 10 rebounds after his first two collegiate games. With improved depth, experience, and talent, Michigan State is much better equipped to knock off a team with a roster full of McDonald’s All-Americans.
“I think that experience last year that humbled everybody was a good experience,” Izzo said. “It was one of the few times, maybe the only time in these seven games that we were blown out. It was a blow out game because I don’t think we were ready for that stage, and it is one of the few times I can say that. I think we’re ready for the stage, but we’ve got to play a team that is awfully talented and well coached.”
Michigan State’s last win in the event came in 2015 when Denzel Valentine led the Spartans to a victory over Kansas.
Back in 2013, No. 2 Michigan State defeated No. 1 Kentucky at the United Center in the last meeting between top ranked teams at the Champions Classic. Wins over Kentucky and Kansas, however, have been easier to come by for Michigan State than wins over Duke.
Beating Duke on a national stage would be a psychologically significant step for Michigan State as Izzo looks to add to his Hall of Fame legacy.
“Learning how to win big games in big events is also part of the thing,” Izzo said. Learning how to play in those games is important when your program at a certain level. That’s just another step in the millions of things that we have to accomplish here. Figuring out how to win, knowing how to win, and then translating that into game after game after game. I think it is important in that respect.”