Oklahoma-Michigan St. Preview
Tom Izzo had been waiting for Michigan State to prove worthy of its No. 1 ranking, and he finally got his wish.
After a relatively easy victory in the semifinals of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic, the Spartans look to take home the title with a win over Oklahoma on Saturday night at the Barclays Center.
While appreciative of his team being recognized as the nation's top team, Izzo has expressed concern about Michigan State not playing up to that standard since beating then-No. 1 Kentucky on Nov. 12.
Michigan State (5-0) barely held off Columbia 62-53 on Nov. 15 before having to pull away late to beat Portland 82-67 on Monday, prompting Izzo to refer to his squad as "a work in progress in a lot of ways."
The Spartans didn't have many issues Friday, taking a 13-point lead at the half and routing Virginia Tech 96-77. Adreian Payne scored a career-high 29 points while adding 10 rebounds and three blocks.
''We're just trying to have a lot fun,'' Payne said. ''We're just making shots. That was a big difference. We were pushing the ball on transition. That's it.''
Payne passed on entering the NBA draft to return for his senior season. Every prior four-year player under Izzo has reached a Final Four.
''He's very efficient right now,'' Izzo said. ''I hope we start appreciating guys who stay around school and get better.''
Gary Harris scored 19 points despite going 2 of 12 from 3-point range.
''I'm not worried,'' Harris said. ''It's been a while since I've shot this badly. But it's not like I was missing badly.''
The Spartans, who have ranked in the top 10 in the country in average rebound differential for six of the last seven campaigns, remained unbeaten despite losing the battle on the boards for the third time this season.
Michigan State, which has finished in the bottom four of the Big Ten in turnovers per game in each of the last seven seasons, committed a season-low six against the Hokies.
It may be in for more of a challenge Saturday against a scrappy Oklahoma team that overcame a six-point deficit with 31 seconds remaining to beat Seton Hall 86-85 in Friday's other semifinal.
Cameron Clark scored 20 points and Isaiah Cousins added 19 for the Sooners (4-0), who applied frantic full-court pressure that forced multiple turnovers in the closing seconds before Buddy Hield hit a pair of free throws with 9.3 left.
"Down the stretch, we were just very fortunate to get a couple of bounces," coach Lon Kruger said. "I'm happy for the guys. They kept their heads up. They kept working. They kept battling. They made something good happen there late and finished it off."
Kruger also is aware of what's in store for his team in the championship game.
"It's always good to play against a high level of competition," Kruger said. "Michigan State is one of the best teams, ranked No. 1 in the country, deservedly. Always a physical ball club. Always executes things very well. Tom's clubs always play great.
"We've got a really young team and it will be great experience, and yet they're going to go out there expecting to make good things happen."
These teams last met when No. 14 Oklahoma beat No. 5 Michigan State 80-77 in overtime Dec. 6, 2003.