Michigan State plays for the first time in Detroit’s new arena Saturday. Coach Tom Izzo hopes his team will make a return trip in the postseason.
The No. 2 Spartans will face in-state rival Oakland as part of a doubleheader at Little Caesars Arena. Michigan and Detroit Mercy will square off in the opening game.
The new home for the Detroit Pistons and Red Wings will also be an early-round venue for the NCAA Tournament this season.
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“It is sold out. How cool is that? Of course, that’s going to be big for them,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I’d like to see if our team is maturing. I hope it’s really big for us, too. We get a chance to play in downtown Detroit. We get a chance to play in a place where (coach Stan) Van Gundy leads the Pistons. We get a chance to play in a place where if we win enough, we could be playing there in March.”
Michigan State (9-1) will bring an eight-game winning streak with it during the 1 1/2-hour bus ride to the city. The Spartans have won the 15 previous meetings with the Golden Grizzlies (6-4), but the last couple haven’t been easy.
Oakland led the Spartans, who were ranked No. 1 at the time, by 13 at the half and took them to overtime at The Palace of Auburn Hills two years ago before succumbing 99-93. Last season at Michigan State’s Breslin Center, the Golden Grizzlies trailed by just four with less than nine minutes to go before falling 77-65.
Oakland is considered the Horizon League favorite, though it’s dealt with injuries and a key suspension.
“It’s a team I expect to be in the NCAA tournament, to put a little pressure on my friend (coach Greg Kampe), and I think deservingly so,” Izzo said. “They’ve got a good enough team to get there. So it’s not just a big win for his program, now. It could be a damn good win for our program, too.”
The Spartans haven’t played since Saturday, when they recorded an 88-63 non-conference victory over Southern Utah. All of their wins during the streak have come by double digits.
Every starter is averaging double figures, led by sophomore forward Miles Bridges (15.6 points, 6.9 rebounds). A trio of players share the scoring load for the Grizzlies, led by senior guard and Illinois transfer Kendrick Nunn (21.7 points).
Senior guard Martez Walker (21.3 points) and senior foward Jalen Hayes (19.3 points, 9.3 rebounds) are their other top threats. Nunn has missed three games with an ankle sprain, while Hayes sat out four games because of an academic eligibility issue.
“It’s hard to look at a lot of film when they didn’t have two of their guys because they’re a completely different team,” Izzo said. “You have three guys averaging almost 20 points a game.”
Oakland announced Wednesday that freshman forward James Beck, who started six games, would be out 6-to-8 weeks with multiple stress fractures in his right leg. Reserve junior guard Jaevin Cumberland will miss the rest of the season because of an ankle injury.
“Our number one priority is to get these young men healthy,” Kampe said. “It is sad that in a year with such high expectations we lose some key pieces, but next man up. I have a lot of good players.”
Kampe just hopes the injury issues dissipate and his team can reach its potential.
“There’s a lot of question marks if we don’t get healthy,” he said. “I would prefer that we are healthy and that we can be the team we thought we were going to be because we sure haven’t had that chance yet.”