By Adam Biggers
Michigan State Spartans (7-2) already have a solid home win under their belt, a 65-49 bouncing Nov. 30 of the Florida State Seminoles during the Big Ten-ACC Challenge.
And while Michigan State showed glimpses of its strength in losses to North Carolina and Duke early on, both of those games were played at neutral sites—not true "road" games, by definition.
Aboard the USS Carl Vinson in the waters outside of San Diego on Veteran's Day, then top-ranked North Carolina disposed of the Spartans, 67-55. Four days later, Nov. 15, the Spartans fell 74-69 to Duke during the State Farm Champions Classic at the Madison Square Garden in New York City.
The Spartans, fresh off an 89-69 win over Central Connecticut State at the Breslin Center, haven't had their will truly tested on the road, unless, of course, a 72-40 blowout triumph over Eastern Michigan in Ypsilanti counts.
Which it doesn't.
Saturday, against the Gonzaga Bulldogs (5-2), the Spartans will finally get their opportunity to prove that they have made strides in the right direction, and possibly crack the top-25 rankings, with a win at the McCarthey Athletic Center in Spokane, Wash.
The lack of road games presents a challenge when attempting to gauge the Spartans' effectiveness away from East Lansing. Last season, the Spartans didn't earn their stripes on the road until Jan. 3 after beating Big Ten foe Northwestern 65-62 in Evanston. Minus a tournament win at Chaminade, the Spartans were hardly competitive away from the Breslin Center, posting an embarrassing 2-8 record.
The lack of team chemistry could to be blame, maybe even the lack of preparation. But that shouldn't be the case Saturday, because by all accounts, the Spartans are a much more tight-knit unit this winter and have just as much, if not more, potential to be successful as the 2010-11 team had.
Gonzaga has made the NCAA Tournament each season since 2000 under 12th-year coach Mark Few. The Bulldogs qualified each year since 1999, but Few was then an assistant. He's coached Gonzaga to WCC titles each year, except 2003, during the same span. If the Bulldog's impressive track record is of any indication, the Spartans, who lost in the first round last season to UCLA, will have their fourth duel with a potential tournament squad this season (UNC, Duke, Florida State).
A win over Gonzaga at Spokane would likely bolster the Spartans' confidence after the lackluster season they had a year ago. Saturday's game is more than a road game, it's almost like an early tournament game, due to the level of competition it will face.
Izzo will be reunited with his mentor, the legendary former Spartans coach Jud Heathcote, who lives in Washington. As one of the figureheads of Spartans basketball, Heathcote's opinion carries a significant amount of weight, especially to Michigan State followers.
He coached the Spartans to their first national title in 1979 and has kept close tabs on Izzo and the Spartans since his retirement in 1995, the year Izzo took the reins.
The Spartans certainly have the talent, with young guards Travis Trice and Keith Appling proving more than capable of running Izzo's offense. Senior Draymond Green has his team under control, while Trice's fellow freshman Branden Dawson has shown glimpses of steady play.
"I think Tom's going to have a real good team come March," Heathcote said during an interview with a Michigan-based radio show. "The guards are starting to get better every game. Draymond Green is maybe the best player in the Big Ten. But what bothers me is the inconsistency of the two centers, both (Adreian) Payne and (Derrick) Nix. They have their moments, but they're not enough.
"(Payne's) got to do more, and he can do more. He's such a good athlete. But there's an awful lot of good athletes in the game of basketball that aren't good basketball players."
Adam can be reached by e-mail at Adam.Biggers@Yahoo.com, or, by Twitter @AdamBiggers81.