No. 8 Michigan State opens their season on Tuesday night against Chicago State (0-1) in the first round of the CBE Classic.
The Spartans are one of the four host schools in the College Basketball Experience (CBE) tournament, with Maryland, Missouri and UCLA being the other regional hosts.
After two slow exhibition games where coach Tom Izzo experimented with his lineups and tried to get his freshman a lot of minutes, the Spartans now must pull it together against a Cougar squad that gave them all they could handle in their meeting last year.
"We're healthy, (Marquise) Gray is back, has practiced well, we've probably had three or four of the best practices since the first week, I feel good about where we are and where we are going," said Izzo.
The two met on Dec. 16, 2006 with the Spartans winning 69-61 in an eventful game for both teams.
The Chicago State coach at the time, Kevin Jones, said he was physically challenged by guard Cam-Ron Clay at halftime and wouldn't have him back on the team. Clay was kicked off the team on the spot and was provided with alternate transportation back to Chicago.
Also at halftime, after being disgusted with his team's effort in the first half, Izzo's starting five to start the second half gave the Breslin Center crowd a shocker.
Izzo started walk-ons Brandon Darnton, a former student assistant, and DeMarcus Ducre at guard in the second half, benching his star Drew Neitzel.
"I'll put up with a lot of stuff," Izzo said last year after a second-half surge saved the Spartans. "But the effort-related things, I'm not going to put up with. If that means we lose a game, then saddle up and get ready for the talk shows and the papers to say a lot of nasty things because we're going to lose a game."
Neitzel responded, scoring 21 of his career-high 32 points in the final 14:42 of the game as the Spartans avoided an upset loss.
One year later, the Cougars return only four players from last year's team and welcome 10 newcomers to the mix as well as new head coach Benjy Taylor.
Junior point guard David Holston scored 18 points in last year's contest and scored 29 points in his team's season opener last week. Holston is the most dangerous Cougar player, averaging 15.6 points per game last season while shooting over 40 percent from three.
"This Holston kid is something special, he had 29 points in 11 or 12 minutes the other night, at 5-foot-8 or 9, he can shoot it from anywhere, he's as quick as anybody we'll play," said Izzo. "If you don't cover him well he'll take you to the rack and finish there. He gets to the free-throw line a lot also."
Another player to watch will be junior John Cantrell, who averaged 12.6 points per game and getting 36 steals on the season.
Both Holston and Cantrell are from Pontiac, Mich. and will be more than ready to play in front of friends and family as well.
"I think it will be an up and down, this year we would like to raise the tempo, those two kids are really good athletes and I'm sure they will be up for a game back in their home state," said Izzo.
The Spartans have a few newcomers of their own on the squad, all of which will see major minutes and contribute from the start.
"I think we have a good team with a chance to be a great team but we are not there yet. I'm not sure that any game is a safe game anymore," said Izzo, who starts his 14th year as the MSU coach.
"I think it's even more exciting this year because there is more unknown, I mean when you play three freshman a decent amount of time, there's times in practice when those pieces fit together and I tell myself this will be pretty good. I am excited to get the season under way and I think playing back to back games will be a test this early in the season."
Drew Neitzel starts the season as an NCAA First Team All-American and pre-season Big Ten Player of the Year. Although he has struggled shooting the ball in two exhibition games, both he and Izzo know it's not something to worry about.
"Of all the things I worry about, that's the least one I worry about because I think he's a shooter and he has shot the ball all of his life," said Izzo. "I think that timing has something to do with it but he shot the ball pretty well the last two days and I think he will shoot the ball well in the future."
On Monday, Izzo delivered some good news for Tuesday's game, announcing that sophomore forward Raymar Morgan will dress and be ready to play against the Cougars, after missing their last exhibition game due to academic reasons.
"Raymar will play, that was a one-game suspension for some academic issues he didn't take care of. Now hopefully in the future it will not happen, he always been a pretty accountable kid," said Izzo.
As far as openers go, MSU is 75-11 in season openers at home, 86-22 all-time, including having won 29 of the last 30 season openers.
MSU was 18-1 at home in the Breslin Center last season.
The Spartans will face the winner of the other first round contest between Northern Michigan and Louisiana-Monroe on Wednesday night.
Should the Spartans make it out of their region, they have a chance to play some of the top teams from the other conferences, projected to play Missouri in the semifinals on Nov. 19 in Kansas City, Missouri.
The other projected semifinal will include No. 2 UCLA taking on Maryland.
Spartans Host Chicago State in Season Opener
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