When BYU traveled to the Palace of Auburn Hills last December to meet Michigan State, the Cougars didn't shoot particularly well and fell by 15 points.
"We got spanked pretty good," recalled BYU coach Dave Rose.
The No. 20 Cougars are looking for a much better showing today (2 p.m.) when they face the No. 9 Spartans again, this time at Energy Solutions Arena. BYU is eager to show how far it has come since then.
"(Michigan State) didn't get a full taste of what we're capable of last year," said Cougar guard Lee Cummard. "We want to go out and prove that we can play with anybody in the country. They are a storied university, and we want to start something like that here. This is another wall to knock down to keep propelling this team to the next level."
BYU (7-1) proved that it can play with anybody in the country a couple of weeks ago in Las Vegas, where it upset then-No. 6 Louisville, then gave top-ranked North Carolina a competitive game before losing.
"Those games helped us realize we can play with any team in the country," said BYU center Trent Plaisted. "We're not afraid of Michigan State. We're going to go in there and fight hard. Whoever comes out on top is going to earn that win. Michigan State is a great basketball team and one of the toughest teams in all of college basketball. We're pretty tough-minded ourselves. It's going to be a battle for 40 minutes. We're ready for it."
"If you can't get up for a game like this, you don't belong to play," said BYU guard Sam Burgess. "(Michigan State) beat us pretty good last time. This is a game you mark on your schedule, as well as Louisville and North Carolina. Hopefully we can play the game we want to play. They're a great team, so we have to play a really good game."
Last Wednesday, while BYU was whipping Weber State, Michigan State (7-1) was squeaking past Bradley, 66-61, in the Spartans' first true road game of the season. Michigan State guard Drew Neitzel nailed a clutch 3-pointer to spark a key run, and forward Raymar Morgan scored 15 in the narrow win. The Spartans' lone loss this season came at the hands of then-No. 1 UCLA.
Rose said his team matches up well with Michigan State. "Our styles are pretty similar. (The Spartans) are really tough defensively, they execute their offense with precision and they're a really good rebounding team."
"We have a lot of physical guys on this team, and we don't back down from anybody," Cummard said. "We just have to match their physicality and their toughness and we'll be fine."
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, who led the program to the 2000 NCAA championship, knows today's game will be a test for his team.
"Ninety percent of the BYU players are married. I'm not sure if that's good or it's bad," Izzo said. "But BYU could be as good as any team we play in a nonconference game."
Neitzel, a 6-foot senior guard, is one of the premier players in the country. Like last year, Cummard is expected to help defend him. "He's a great player. Basically, he can do anything he can shoot, drive and pass," Cummard said of Neitzel. "He can score with his left hand and his right hand. So far, he's the best player I've had to guard."
While Neitzel receives a lot of attention, Morgan leads Michigan State in scoring, averaging 17.6 points per game. "Morgan is a really tough match because he's a terrific scorer and a great athlete," Rose said.
The way Rose sees it, scheduling nonconference games against top-notch competition is a great way to prepare his team for the rest of the season.
"It's a good opportunity for us. The most important thing about Saturday's game is that it's going to be a really good opponent that will prepare us for our league schedule," Rose said. "That's why you schedule these kinds of games. It has a little different flavor to it, with both teams being ranked, but the reality is, this game is scheduled to help prepare us for our conference schedule starting in January."
As a player at the University of Houston in the early 1980s, Rose remembers fondly taking on Syracuse at the Carrier Dome and facing Virginia and Ralph Sampson."When we played in those kinds of games, those were really, really exciting as a player," Rose said. "So that's what I want for our players to be able to experience that."
NOTES: The all-time series between BYU and Michigan State, which dates back to 1930, is tied, 4-4 ... The game is being broadcast by BYUTV and KJZZ, Ch. 14 ... As of Friday, today's game was close to being sold out ... For the Spartans, all five starters return from a squad that posted a 23-12 record last season and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament ... Izzo has compiled a 294-122 record in his 13 seasons at East Lansing ... The Spartans have held opponents to 37.7 percent shooting from the floor, and they outrebound their opponents by an average of 41.6 to 30.1 per game.
Cougars on the air
(20) BYU (7-1) vs. (9) Michigan St. (7-1)
Saturday, 2 p.m.