The mention of Michigan State to a couple of Gonzaga players triggered similar responses.
“Hardnosed, toughness,” freshman guard Gary Bell Jr. said. “They’re going to try to come out and push us around. We can’t let that happen. They go to the offensive boards very hard.”
“They’re just tough every year, one of the toughest teams in the nation,” sophomore forward Sam Dower said. “Physical and good rebounders, always.”
Those are program trademarks for the Spartans, who dropped their first two games to North Carolina and Duke before putting together a seven-game winning streak entering Saturday night’s showdown with the Bulldogs at the McCarthey Athletic Center.
It may not be the ideal bounce-back game for Gonzaga, which lost for the first time at Illinois last Saturday, but it’s a match-up with plenty of fan appeal. Gonzaga (5-1) has made 13 straight trips to the NCAA Tournament. Michigan State (7-2) is one of college basketball’s elite programs with one national championship (2000) and six Final Fours in the last 13 years under coach Tom Izzo.
“We don’t get a lot of teams like that in here,” center Robert Sacre said. “We had Xavier and Oklahoma State last year. Michigan State, that’s special.”
The Spartans lead the nation in rebounding margin (plus-12.6). They average nearly 75 points per game, roughly 21 percent coming on second-chance points (15.6 per game). Michigan State has led the nation in rebounding margin four times in the last 12 years.
“We’re going to have to beef up and get pretty physical,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few said. “That’s what they take a lot of pride in and we need to get better at that aspect anyway.”
The Spartans have limited opponents to 34-percent shooting in their seven-game winning streak. Meanwhile, they’ve heated up from the perimeter (43 percent on 3s) over the last three games.
Senior forward Draymond Green leads the team in minutes (32.2 per game), points (14.3), rebounds (10.6), assists (28), turnovers (25), fouls (24), steals (15) and blocks (10, tied with Adreian Payne).
“We lost some stars (Delvon Roe to a degenerative knee condition) and I got rid of one or two (point guard Korie Lucious, who transferred to Iowa State),” Izzo said. “We’ve started to shoot the ball better and we’ve been very good defensively. It’s one of those young teams led by a good captain (Green) who is kind of a versatile, do-everything guy. The rest of it we’re doing by committee.”
Gonzaga is 1-3 versus Michigan State, which claimed the most recent meeting, 75-71, two years ago in East Lansing. Sacre and forward Elias Harris each scored 17 points. Gonzaga led most of the way before the Spartans rallied late.
“Sacre and Harris have gotten so much stronger and tougher,” Izzo said. “There was a time when (Few’s) teams maybe weren’t as tough as they were talented. (David) Stockton and (Kevin) Pangos play so hard, Harris and Sacre and Dower, you have a lot of guys who I think are competing.
“In some ways, maybe the guard play is a little more sporadic than those great, great guard teams he had, but the inside play is even better. I saw the Illinois game and it was a fistfight. That’s what I like about his team. He’s got shooters, a post man who is a big-time player, he’s got Harris who can go a lot of different places, he’s got role players. He’s got a nice team.”