North Carolina presents another top-10 measuring stick for Michigan State

Connecticut’s David Onuorah, left, fouls Michigan State’s Jaren Jakson, right, while going after a loose ball in the second half of an NCAA college basketball game during the Phil Knight Invitational tournament in Portland, Ore., Friday, Nov. 24, 2017.(

PORTLAND, Ore. — Michigan State got what it wanted out of the Phil Knight Invitational: a Sunday championship game matchup against the best team in its bracket.

Now, it will look to get what it hasn’t in the past two seasons: a marquee win against a top-10 opponent

The No. 4 Spartans (4-1) take on No. 9 North Carolina (5-1) on Sunday (8:30 p.m. ET, ESPN) in the championship game of the Victory Bracket of the three-game tournament.

The game gives the Spartans their wish of a marquee opponent that can prove a measuring stick for a team without a marquee win this year.

"Every time, we want to play the best teams," Spartans sophomore point guard Cassius Winston said. "They’re one of the best teams. We want to prove ourselves against them, prove that we’ve grown from last year, grown from our first game."

Since the start of last season, when the team’s 2016 recruiting class took over as the core of the team, Michigan State has faced five opponents ranked in the top 10 of the AP poll.

It’s lost all five of those games, four of them last year and a 88-81 loss to No. 1 Duke on Nov. 14.

That game, pitting a No. 1 team against a No. 2 team, was the ultimate measuring stick for the Spartans. Playing No. 9 North Carolina isn’t far behind.

"It is a good way to measure our team, because right now I’m not measuring real high on that stick," Spartans coach Tom Izzo said. "I’m sick of these poor first halves. I will say that my team seems to be responding."

Izzo spoke after Michigan State’s Friday win over Connecticut, when his team yet again had a bad start before gaining momentum late for a large win.

The Spartans shot 4-for-17 from the field to start against the Huskies and led by just one after halftime. They were saved by a 23-point second half from Winston as they pulled away for a 77-57 win.

Now, Winston’s task figures to get tougher, particularly on the defensive end. He’ll be tasked with slowing down Tar Heels point guard Joel Berry II, a preseason All-America selection after winning Final Four Most Outstanding Player honors last year en route to North Carolina’s national title.

Berry broke his hand in the preseason but has returned for North Carolina’s last four games, averaging 17 points.

Izzo has been complimentary of Winston’s defense in recent games, after criticizing him for it regularly last year. Sunday will represent his toughest test yet against a quick guard who can shoot and get to the basket.

"He’s, if not the best, one of the best in the country," Winston said of Berry. "That’s who I want to play."

Up front, North Carolina presents a different look than it has in past years. Its frontcourt features 6-foot-9 starting center Garrison Brooks and 6-foot-8 power forward Luke Maye, a smaller and more active player at the position than normal.

Maye has had a breakout year thus far this season, averaging 21.2 points and 10.8 rebounds per game. Against Arkansas in North Carolina’s PK80 semifinal, he set career-highs with 28 points and 16 rebounds.

He also made four 3-pointers, a fact that the Tar Heels hope makes difficult to guard.

"It’s just a different look compared to what people have seen the last couple of years," Berry said. We usually have two guys who are on the block, and now you have somebody who’s setting a pick, and he’s not rolling to the basket, he can step out and hit the 3."

Izzo said he’s taken his typical NCAA Tournament approach of scouting potential opponents ahead of time, instead of waiting to know his team’s matchup to begin starting. That means the preparation for North Carolina started before Friday night.

But he said his larger concern still lies with his team, and getting the Spartans’ offense operating better than it has thus far this tournament.

"I’m pleased that we’re making progress," Izzo said. "I’m pleased that we made a lot of progress with our turnovers, and I, the head coach, have to do a better job of getting us in an offense."

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