Jayhawks Face Spartans Saturday

Bill Self will never forget playing Michigan State in just his second game as head coach at Kansas on Nov. 25, 2003. In one of the best Allen Fieldhouse crowds of the Self era, No. 6 KU beat No. 3 Michigan State, 81-74. Wayne Simien was game-high scorer with 27 points, while Aaron Miles added 17 and Keith Langford 13.

“The building was juiced,” Bill Self recalled. “It was a great atmosphere. I remember we played great, got a lead and then they just ran it right down our throats and got back in it. But it was a good game, really a fabulous game.”

Five years later, Kansas (11-3) and Michigan State (12-2) meet again Saturday at noon (CST) at the Breslin Center in East Lansing. The No. 8 Spartans bring an eight-game winning streak into the matchup, while KU has won three straight following its bitter 84-67 loss at Arizona on Dec. 23.

Self knows the physical and talented Spartans pose a severe test.

“They’re as good as what their preseason ranking was,” Self said. “They’re a lot like us. They’re playing really well now. They’re a team that can obviously make a run at it and go to the Final Four. I like their team, I think they’re great at the guard spot. They have probably as versatile of two big guards or wings that you could have in (Durrell) Summers and (Raymar) Morgan, and then they have some guys that can anchor the side. ... They create some problems, and they are fast.”

Michigan State’s two losses this season have both come on the road versus Maryland (80-62) on Nov. 27, and to North Carolina (98-63) on Dec. 3. The Spartans have been on fire since the UNC loss, including winning their last three games against Big Ten foes Minnesota, Northwestern, and Ohio State.

MSU beat the Buckeyes on Tuesday, 67-58, for its 26th straight home victory, the third longest home-winning streak in the nation. Six-foot sophomore guard Kalin Lucas led Michigan State with 20 points, while Morgan had his third-straight double-double with 13 points and 10 boards.

The Spartans are averaging 77.8 points per game and allowing just 66.4, while shooting 47.7 percent from the field, compared to 41.4 by their opponents. MSU is also an impressive three-point shooting team at 40.3 percent, and dominates the boards with a +9.6 rebound margin, 40.6 to 31.1.

The Spartans are a deep squad with eight players averaging at least 13.5 minutes per game. MSU is led by the 6-8 junior forward Morgan with 15.2 points and 7.0 rebounds per game. He’s also shooting a sparkling 60.2 percent from the field. Lucas (13.3 ppg and team high with 6.0 assists and 1.2 steals per game) and fellow sophomore guard Chris Allen (10.6 ppg and team-high 28 threes) are the other two Spartans averaging in double figures. Lucas also sports an uncanny 4.94 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Senior center Goran Suton is next in scoring at 9.6 points per game (6.8 rpg), followed by sophomore guard Summers (8.4 ppg, 47.2 percent from three-point range), senior guard Travis Walton (6.1 ppg, 3.1 apg, 1.0 spg), freshman forward Delvon Roe (5.4 ppg, 5.4 rpg), and senior Marquise Gray (4.8 ppg).

Self has great respect for Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo and the Spartans’ players. The KU coach is extremely high on Lucas.

“He’s really talented,” Self said. “He looks like to me he’s a total extension of coach Izzo. It looks like they have a relationship in which he (Izzo) has total confidence in him. He’s probably playing about as well as any guard around. (In addition to his great assist-to-turnover ratio), he’s making shots, too,” Self added of Lucas, who’s shooting 50 percent from the field, 60 percent from three-point range (6 of 10), and 93.8 percent at the free-throw line.

Self is familiar playing at the Breslin Center from his days at Illinois. He knows it’s one of toughest venues in America.

“It’s a great home court, just like we have a great home court,” Self said. “This will be one of the best home courts we play at all year, and arguably could be the best. It will be jumping, I would think. I was at Illinois for three years and I only went to the Breslin Center twice because we had kind of a weird schedule. But certainly, I’ve got an idea of what it’s like. It’s a fun place to go play. You need to be really focused and tough. And poised.”

The Jayhawks are ready to meet the challenge. They already got their signature home victory against Tennessee on Jan. 3. Now, they need a statement win on the road.

“We have some confidence right now,”  sophomore center Cole Aldrich said. “We played a really tough Tennessee team and a really tough Siena team. I think we played those guys pretty well. I think it’s going to be a really tough team at Michigan State. The Izzo fans are going to be pretty crazy, but we’re excited to get out there and play.”

The Spartans have a history of having tough, strong, physical teams, and this Izzo squad is no exception. KU will expect a physical and fast-paced Michigan State team which will pressure the ball on defense.

“We need to play more physical,” Self said. “Hopefully, this game will prepare us for league play.”

The Michigan State game will close out the non-conference schedule before KU begins Big 12 play at home against K-State next Tuesday. Self will make a decision on whether or not to redshirt junior forward Mario Little before then. Little has played in two games since coming back from a stress fracture in his left leg and broken bone in his left (non-shooting) hand.

“I think it’s a possibility,” Self said Thursday about redshirting Little. “I don’t want to say it is or not, but we’re going to have to make a decision in the next five days or so. If he’s experiencing serious pain (in his leg), which right now he may not be, but we don’t know if he played 20 minutes in a game he would, so we’re going to have to play that by ear.”

“All I said to Mario was ‘just give it a chance,’” Self added. “’If it’s still bothering you and if you can’t go, you can’t go. But if you can go, at least we know.’”

Self hopes Little will be healthy enough to play during the second semester.

“This team needs him. If he can go, we’d like for him to go,” Self said. “I think he feels the same way. But there’s no reason for him to go at 80 or 70 percent because then he wouldn't play enough to warrant playing second semester.”

Little and the Jayhawks are looking forward to closing out the non-conference season with a bang, and hopefully finish the game with the same result as the last KU-Michigan State contest five years ago.

KU certainly wants to prove itself against the Spartans after getting whipped by Arizona in its last road game.

“They are a great team,” junior guard Sherron Collins said. “They are the best team in the nation in transition. ...They are tough. I think we’re ready for another road test. It’s going to be a fight, but I think we should be better this time.”

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