As the season begins, Michigan State is showing they can play with some of the nation’s elite

East Lansing – Playing a non-conference schedule as difficult as the one Michigan State is in comes with some risk.

Losing games can be contagious at times, and the early slate was, and still is, challenging. Sliding in the wrong direction can send a team into a spiral that is difficult to get out of.

However, win a few – especially early in the stretch – and things don’t look nearly as scary. And as the Spartans did with victories over Kentucky and Villanova — and even in the one-point loss to Gonzaga — a certain confidence is starting to emerge.

A battle-hardened team is taking shape for Michigan State as the No. 12 Spartans take on No. 18 Alabama at Thursday’s Phil Knight Invitational in Portland.

“We actually expected that,” said senior Joey Hauser, who scored 23 goals in the win against Kentucky and 13 against Villanova. “That’s why we play a schedule like this – to play these tough games. And being in tight games, making big shots and those things will all help us along the way. So the good thing is that we can continue with that.”

Michigan State (3-1) will certainly have its share of tough games over four days in Portland.

The matchup with Alabama, which ends at 10:30 p.m. on Thanksgiving, is another unique matchup. Unlike the teams the Spartans have faced so far, Alabama is all about a frenetic pace, using its length and athleticism to get shots as quickly as possible – mostly from 3-point range or near the basket – two-point long distance almost banned from the game board.

Indeed, the Crimson Tide (4-0) grabbed 46 3-pointers in Friday’s win over Jacksonville State and is led by dynamic 6-foot-9 freshman Brandon Miller, who is averaging 20.3 points and 9.3 rebounds scored and shoots 51.7% from 3 point range.

“The Miller boy is anyone’s #2 or #3 pick in the (NBA) draft,” Izzo said. “Long, athletic, can shoot threes. Some people compare him to Kevin Durant.”

However, Alabama is not a one-man team. Guard Mark Sears, a former Ohio transfer, is averaging 15.3 points and 5.5 rebounds while playing 29 minutes per game. He’s also shooting more than 40% from 3-point range, and freshman Rylan Griffen is averaging 10.3 points and 5.3 rebounds from the bench.

Senior point guard Jahvon Quinerly has been in the last two games, working his way back after tearing an ACL in last season’s NCAA tournament. The former McDonald’s All-America, who joined from Villanova two years ago, could see extensive minutes against the Spartans.

“They didn’t think he would be back until mid-December and he’s already played two games,” Izzo said. “He makes a real difference. He is a point guard who leads their team. He’s a very good quarterback.”

What Michigan State will be counting on is a defense that has emerged after two underperforming seasons. At the end of last year, the Spartans were 67th in the country in defensive efficiency. They are 23 after four games this seasonapproxa place where they feel more comfortable.

“I think our versatility just gives us an opportunity to protect a number of different people,” senior forward Malik Hall said. “I think everyone’s improved a little bit and defense is something we always focus on, so I think we just took a little bit more to heart this year. Our team – not just the coaching staff, but our team, the players – focused more on that.”

However, the players have taken their lead from the staff, who are looking different this season with Dwayne Stephens leaving to become a head coach at Western Michigan and Mike Garland retiring. Thomas Kelly completed the current team, which includes Mark Montgomery and Doug Wojcik, and Izzo regularly praised her work and the players’ willingness to stick to the game plan in every game.

“I have to give a lot of credit to my staff when you have so much preparation that’s completely different,” Izzo said. “It takes a lot of work and they have to get it to the point where we can present it without turning heads because there are so many different things. … I think my staff have done an incredible job during this difficult period that we’re going through.

“It’s going to take a lot from my staff and our players and yet what an exciting time for us as we’ve put ourselves in a position where we feel like we can play with a lot of people and yet understand that we can Having warts and things we don’t do well.”

The trip to Portland is not unique. This is a tournament – three games in four days – and that means the Spartans want to win just like they did five years ago when they won their group in the PK80 and beat North Carolina in the championship.

The top-ranked Tar Heels are back in class, but either UConn or Oregon would be up next on Friday ahead of a potential rematch with North Carolina.

But with the games they’ve played and the way they defend, the Spartans are confident they can play with any team they face.

“We can keep up with some of the best teams,” said Hauser. “We lost to national No. 2 Gonzaga by possession, beat Kentucky and a really well-trained Villanova team. So I think we’re just more confident.”

No. 12 Michigan State vs. No. 18 Alabama

Tip: Thursday, 10:30 p.m., Moda Center, Portland, Oregon

TV/Radio: ESPN/WJR 760

Records: Michigan 3-1, Alabama 4-0

Outlook: Michigan State won the 2017 PK80 Invitational. The Spartans beat DePaul, UConn and North Carolina while Cassius Winston was named tournament MVP. Alabama coach Nate Oats coached Romulus High School for 11 seasons and led the Eagles to a state championship in 2013.

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Twitter: @mattcharboneau

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