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Gonzaga Basketball

‘Bigger than basketball.’ No. 2 Gonzaga, Michigan State to meet in highly-anticipated Armed Forces Classic

SAN DIEGO – Tom Izzo notched two victories on Monday night. The longtime Michigan State coach picked up career win No. 667 in relatively easy fashion, beating Northern Arizona 73-55 at the Breslin Center, before getting a phone call that could go a long way toward securing No. 668.

“A great thing happened. My wife called and said that the power went out at my house,” Izzo told reporters in a postgame news conference. “A good reason to stay at work tonight. Now I don’t have to apologize for it, I can just hang out here for a few hours.”

Izzo hunkered down in his office to catch the second half of Gonzaga’s 104-63 runaway victory against North Florida, then began plotting ways the Spartans could create a power outage for the second-ranked Bulldogs in Friday’s Armed Forces Classic (3:30 p.m., ESPN) on the flight deck of the USS Abraham Lincoln.

“It was a late night. Thank god the power went out at my house so I didn’t have to make excuses,” Izzo said. “They’re good, they’re the best fast-breaking team I’ve seen in a while and they get it up and go.”

Neither Izzo nor Gonzaga counterpart Mark Few could afford to waste much time when it came to preparation. That’s partially out of respect for the opponent, but also out of anticipation for the crammed schedules that would await both teams in San Diego.

The Bulldogs and Spartans arrived on Wednesday and spent much of Thursday touring the Navy vessel, mingling with sailors, visiting a naval museum and attending a special dinner.

With approximately 2,000 active duty military members filling the bleachers, a pregame flyover and a halftime enlistment ceremony, the basketball game may feel more like a sideshow.

“Everybody’s getting caught up in the basketball side of it. This is so much bigger than basketball,” said ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg, who’ll be hosting a half-hour SportsCenter segment from the USS Abraham Lincoln before Friday’s game. “This is a way to use the game as a vehicle to pay tribute to our armed forces and our veterans and maybe put some things in perspective.

“I know everyone wants to talk about the game. I think the game is a game in November with two great brands, two coaches that really have a lot of respect for each other and have accomplished great things but also have a great respect for the sacrifices our veterans have made.”

The matchup, of course, is still compelling.

Few and Izzo are part of college basketball’s exclusive 600-win club. Their programs have combined to make 47 NCAA Tournament appearances since 1998 and the game should serve as a litmus test for teams that go on to daunting nonconference schedules after this.

Gonzaga plays No. 12 Texas and No. 4 Kentucky next week while Michigan State heads into a stretch that includes games against Kentucky and No. 16 Villanova.

The Bulldogs and Spartans are also competing in opposite brackets at the Portland-based PK85.

“There’s only a handful of people that can say they played a game on an aircraft carrier,” Gonzaga junior Julian Strawther said. “To do it against a prestigious school like Michigan State and that program, I feel like that’s just something that’s good for college basketball and I’m super excited for it.”

Few’s offense, capable of operating at a rapid pace in transition and headed by national player of the year candidate Drew Timme, has forced Izzo to keep late hours this week. The stakes aren’t the same, but MSU’s coach likened it to preparing for an NCAA Tournament game during a media session earlier this week.

“Of course Timme is exactly what they said,” Izzo said. “He’s probably the best center in college basketball when you look at all the way around. He can do it a lot of different ways and it’ll be a great challenge for us but an exciting one.”

Izzo’s group doesn’t have a clear-cut All-American, at least not at this early stage of the season, and the 25th-year Michigan State coach declined to dip his toes the transfer portal this season. The Spartans are largely relying on returning starters and bench players from last year’s 23-win team.

MSU’s leading returners are two forwards, Malik Hall (8.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and Joey Hauser (7.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg), but their best chance at limiting Timme’s production may be Mady Sissoko if the 6-foot-9, 240-pound junior can avoid getting into foul trouble.

“My gut feeling is (Timme) fouls out Mady Sissoko and then the backup is a freshman,” Greenberg said.

When it comes to Izzo teams, the style of play may be more important than the personnel in some cases.

“It’s Michigan State, so they’re going to be really tough, really physical, they’ll execute their stuff really well, they’ll fly the ball up the floor,” Few said. “Then if they don’t have anything, they’ll pull it out and run their stuff really, really tight. Then when that ball goes up on the rim, they are going to get it. You could probably write that script for the last 15 years or 20 years.”

ESPN’s predictive tool gives Gonzaga an 83.1% chance to win and Ken Pomeroy has the Bulldogs’ chances at 75%, but the unique setting could alter how things unfold and the Zags know it would be foolish to overlook any Izzo-led group.

The Spartans are receiving AP Top 25 votes and would likely climb into the rankings with a win .

“It’s going to be a tough challenge and Michigan State plays hard,” Timme said. “That’s a Tom Izzo DNA and they’re very blue collar in how they play, so if we want to just be kind of cute and pretty and everything, (we’re going to lose). So we’ve got to come out and not be afraid to get our nose dirty.”