Similar MSU, UConn teams meet again

Almost two full seasons after opening in Germany in 2012, the Spartans and Huskies are facing off with a Final Four berth on the line.

In the Armed Forces Classic last season, Michigan State won the tip and Gary Harris ran to the wing.

Then, he just stood there.

"I just spaced out," he said. "I'm just sitting there on the wing and the offense is stagnant because I'm not doing my part."

It was the first game and the first play of Harris' college career and as he described it, "I messed up the whole play."

"There were some nerves in that game," he said. "I settled down in the second half and I played better."

The Spartans went on to lose 66-62 against Connecticut, the team they will meet in the Elite 8 at Madison Square Garden on Sunday.

It also was the first game for Huskies' coach Kevin Ollie as he took over for coaching legend Jim Calhoun. He came out victorious and almost two full seasons later, the teams look pretty similar to what they did in Germany.

"I feel like it's pretty much the same team that we played last year," senior Keith Appling said.

The Connecticut backcourt of Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright is intact – "they're still staples," said Tom Izzo.

But the Huskies, who were not eligible for postseason play last season, have gained a lot since the meeting.

"I think one thing I know for sure is that we have experienced so much the past two years," Napier said. "The biggest thing I think that is different from that first game against them is that experience."

Experience, naturally, is the same distinction the Spartans noted from a season ago to now. Only center Derrick Nix graduated from the Michigan State team last season, leaving the majority of the current rotation with playing time against the Huskies last season.

"That's almost two years, but we've played in a lot of big games since then and played a lot of good teams," Harris said. "I think we've come a long way."

The expectation remains the same, though. Napier referred to upcoming Elite 8 game as a "dogfight" twice and Boatright said the Spartans will stick to their identity be all about toughness.

"Michigan State, they have grown," Napier said. "We have grown and we know this is going to be a dogfight and that game, we're not even thinking about it.

"It's a new game and a new day."

The matchup provides its challenges for each side, which each coach acknowledged repeatedly. Izzo and the Spartans focused on what the Connecticut backcourt can do. Ollie talked on what the Spartans bring to the inside game with Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson.

"We have a got a little more experience inside," Izzo said. "They have probably got a little more outside."

With the experience inside and the way that Payne and Dawson have been playing in the postseason, the Huskies expect to be the team that has to come out and be fighting.

"We're going to have to hit first," Ollie said. "We're going to have to commit to hit. We're going to have to corral basketballs and 50/50 situations. …

"We have to do the small things."

Sophomore center Matt Costello, who didn't play in the game last season as a freshman, said the inside advantage should be clear. But also that it was the same last season.

"We should have an advantage inside, but we should have had an advantage inside when we played them last year and we still got beat," he said.

And after getting beat last season in the opener, the Spartans have a chance to end UConn's season almost two years later.

So even if the Huskies aren't thinking about what happened in Germany, the Spartans might have a little bit of revenge on their minds.

"I think we owe UConn a little bit from Germany," sophomore Denzel Valentine said.

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