No. 3 Michigan State looks to improve vs. Southern Utah

Red-hot Michigan State deposited a couple of Big Ten victories to its win-loss total before the holidays. Now the No.3 Spartans return to their usual December schedule, hosting a handful of unheralded non-conference opponents.

Michigan State carries a seven-game winning streak into its home game against Southern Utah on Saturday. The Spartans play five of their remaining six games before New Year’s Day at their Breslin Center. The other game will be played in Detroit against an in-state team, Oakland.

Following blowouts over two ranked teams, North Carolina and Notre Dame, the Spartans (8-1) cruised past Nebraska before running into some difficulty at Rutgers on Tuesday. They didn’t pull away until the late going of a 62-52 victory.

“In general, we played sluggish from the beginning,” coach Tom Izzo said.

Izzo believes a rugged schedule and overconfidence led to the tougher-than-expected win. All Big Ten teams played two early conference games because their postseason tournament will be held a week earlier than normal at New York’s Madison Square Garden.

While the Spartans are considered co-favorites with Duke by oddsmakers to win the national championship, Izzo is trying to downplay expectations.

“We’re not perfect. We’re not as good as you guys write,” he said. “We’re a good basketball team that’s got a chance to be a great one. You can’t turn it over like we’ve been turning it over and you can’t get those number of offensive fouls like we do. We’re trying to break some bad habits.”

Izzo would like to see Jaren Jackson’s penchant for blocking shots remain in place. The 6-foot-11 freshman tied the school record with eight blocks against the Scarlet Knights. Jackson knows his interior presence will play a major role in how the team fares the rest of the way.

“When you’re ranked as high as we are and you have a bull’s-eye on your back, everywhere we go, we’re going to get the team’s best shot,” he said. “They’re going to hit shots they won’t normally hit against other teams. We’ve got to be ready for that punch out of the gate.”

Jackson’s frontcourt partner, sophomore Nick Ward, was benched most of the second half against Rutgers. Izzo said Ward, who led the team in scoring with 22 points against Nebraska, needs to play with a more level head.

“The double-team thing bothers him,” Izzo said. “I don’t know why it bothers him, but it frustrates him and we’ve got do a better job getting him the ball, too.”

The Thunderbirds (5-3) are led by junior guard Jadon Cohee (18.0 points, 3.9 assists) and senior forward Jamal Aytes (14.6 points, 7.0 rebounds). They have won five of their last six, including a 94-89 triumph over Long Beach State on Wednesday. Junior guard Brandon Better scored a career-high 26 points.

“We want to have so many options out there, and you’re going to have to guard all five guys for us this year, and guys move the ball and they share,” head coach Todd Simon said. “I think one of our biggest strengths is our chemistry. This group gets along off the floor so well, on the floor they share the ball and they make the right play.”

They’ll have to play a near-perfect game to upset the Spartans. Simon believes his club will need to break the game into 10 parts.

“It’s four minutes at a time,” he said. “We’ve got to stay within our process, execute our game plan and let the chips fall where they may.”