Michigan State-North Carolina preview

Roy Williams has gotten the best of Michigan State coach Tom Izzo since taking over at North Carolina 10 years ago.

The Tar Heels and Spartans have met twice in the Final Four – once in a national championship game – and even battled outdoors on a docked aircraft carrier.

No matter the circumstances or venue, Williams has come out on top in all six matchups.

This time, though, it’s Izzo and the top-ranked Spartans who seem to have the advantage when the teams meet in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Wednesday night in East Lansing.

Williams’ Tar Heels were ranked in the top 10 for all six games against Izzo’s Spartans since becoming coach in 2003. Many of those matchups have carried plenty of weight, including North Carolina’s victories in the 2005 national semifinals, the second round of the 2007 NCAA tournament, twice at Ford Field in 2008-09 – once in the regular season and again in the national title game – and on the deck of the USS Carl Vinson with President Obama sitting courtside for the 2011 Carrier Classic.

Despite the Tar Heels (4-2) coming into this contest unranked and fresh off a disheartening 63-59 loss at UAB on Sunday, Izzo expects another tough battle for the Spartans (7-0), who are off to their best start since winning 12 straight to open 2000-01.

“Look at their pedigree, their reputation and the number of great players they have,” Izzo said. “They’ll be one of the more well-coached teams that come in here.”

Senior point guard Keith Appling has been one of the main catalysts for the Spartans’ strong start, leading the team with 16.9 points per game while adding an average of 5.6 assists, second in the Big Ten.

He scored a game-high 17 points in a 98-65 win over Mount St. Mary’s on Friday.

“We’re going to be ready,” Appling told the team’s official website. “We’re going to need to do all the little things in order to come out with a win. We know how good they are.”

North Carolina, though, has hardly been good from game to game this season. The Tar Heels boast a 93-84 victory over then-No. 3 Louisville on Nov. 24, but they also lost at home to Belmont on Nov. 17 before suffering their latest defeat.

North Carolina held UAB to 30.6 percent shooting, but was outrebounded 52-37 and went 1 of 12 from 3-point range. J.P. Tokoto had a career-high 16 points but leading scorer Marcus Paige managed 13 -nearly eight below his average – and went 6 of 16 from the field and 0 for 6 from 3-point range.

“I just felt like they seemed to get every loose ball and so many second-shot opportunities,” said Williams, whose team has yet to play with suspended guard P.J. Hairston. “They won the game because of the rebounding battle. To me, it’s the most important factor in the game of basketball.”

Rebounding has been a staple of past Izzo teams that regularly ranked among the best in the country in average differential, though the Spartans have only a plus-5.4 margin – good for fifth in the conference.

Michigan State, though, has averaged 90.8 points over its last four and is shooting a Big Ten-best 50.6 percent from the field. It will have standout sophomore guard Gary Harris back in the lineup Wednesday after he missed the last contest to rest a nagging ankle injury.

“He’s probably our most all-around important guy because of the impact he can have on both ends of the floor,” Izzo said. “I think that’s what’s so important about getting him not only back, but getting him back where he can do those things.”

The Spartans last beat the Tar Heels 77-64 on Nov. 29, 2000, which was also the last meeting in East Lansing.