The Notre Dame Fighting Irish basketball team made a splash at the Maui Invitational and rode the wave to a No. 5 ranking in the polls. It’s the second straight season the Irish have captured an in-season tournament title, and the first time they’ve been ranked in the top five since 2011. The most impressive part is that they’re doing it the old fashioned way, with players who are committed to spending years with the program.
On Thursday night, the Irish will play a No. 3 Michigan State Spartans team with a similar story. They’re led by a sophomore class with super talented players like Miles Bridges, who chose to return to the school even though he probably could have been drafted. This is the most highly anticipated game of the Big Ten-ACC Challenge and could prove to be a defining moment for the Irish if they pull off the slight upset.
- #BreysChase update: Mike Brey is now six wins away from becoming the all-time wins leader at Notre Dame.
- This will be the 97th meeting between Notre Dame and Michigan State on the hardwood.
- Notre Dame leads the all-time series 60-36, and they are 25-22 on the road at Michigan State.
- In their last meeting, the unranked Irish beat the No. 19 Spartans 79-78 in overtime in 2014, led by career highs from Jerian Grant and Demitrius Jackson.
- The last time both teams played when ranked in the top five was in 1979, when No. 3 Michigan State beat No. 4 Notre Dame in the Elite Eight, 80-68, led by a double-double from Magic Johnson.
- Notre Dame is 3-1 all-time in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge, while Michigan state is 7-10.
- The ACC won the challenge last year, but the Big Ten has won six of the last eight.
Where: Breslin Center, East Lansing, Michigan
When: Thursday, Nov. 30, 7:00 p.m. ET
How to Watch: ESPN national broadcast with Karl Ravech, Jay Bilas, and Seth Greenburg. Also the Notre Dame Basketball Radio Network with Jack Nolan and Zach Hillesland.
No. 3 Michigan State Spartans (5-1)
Michigan State is coming off an in-season tournament win of its own from the PK80 in Portland. The Spartans took down then-No.9 North Carolina in convincing fashion to claim the title. Their only loss this season came against No.1 Duke, which looks like a lock for the Final Four right now. That means after hosting the Fighting Irish on Thursday, the Spartans will have played the top three ACC teams in their first seven games. It’s hard to find another team in the country that has a tougher schedule.
Bridges and fellow sophomores Joshua Langford, Cassius Winston, and Nick Ward are the team’s top-four scorers. Through six games the quartet has accounted for 64.7 percent of the team’s scoring, 41.9 percent of its rebounds, and 58 percent of its assists. Freshman forward Jaren Jackson, Jr. is the team’s fifth starter and was named the Big Ten Co-Freshman of the Week on Monday after posting two double-doubles in the PK80.
As talented as this team can be offensively, it’s their defense that has been truly stifling. They’re tied for 40th in the nation in points allowed per game with 63 (ND is 22nd, giving up 60.2 per game), but they’re ranked second in the nation in opponent field goal percentage at 33.8 (ND is 38th, giving up 37.7 percent). In Michigan State’s win over North Carolina, it gave up just 45 points and held the Tar Heels to 24.6 percent shooting and 0.56 percent from behind the arc.
It should be noted that North Carolina is not a good three-point shooting team, ranked 167th in the nation in that category. But Notre Dame is. The Irish are ranked 15th in the country, draining threes at a rate of 43.2 percent. Let’s not forget that Grayson Allen dropped 37 points on the Spartans shooting 7-11 from distance.
The strength of the Michigan State defense is its interior, ranking 15th in total blocks and 23rd in defensive rebounds per game. Bridges is 6-foot-7 but his athleticism allows him to seem even bigger. Jackson is 6-foot-11 and has a ridiculous wingspan. Ward is a 6-foot-8 bruiser, and all three of them grab at least six rebounds per game.
Spartan to Watch:
Joshua Langford, G, Sophomore
Guard play is going to be crucial in this matchup, and Langford is Michigan State’s tone-setter. The 6-foot-5 sophomore is averaging 13.7 points per game, but is fresh off a 23 point performance against North Carolina. He’ll have a size advantage over T.J. Gibbs who is most likely to square up with him. But it’s Langford’s defense that will have to be the difference in that matchup. The Irish are always looking to shoot it from deep, and Gibbs is 53.3 percent from behind the arc.
Mike Brey is smart, and he shouldn’t be afraid to work the ball into the post and try to get the Michigan State front court in foul trouble. Bridges and Jackson were both limited due to foul trouble against North Carolina. If the Irish can manage to make that happen again, Langford will have to carry the offensive load.
Bonzie Colson, F, Senior
This is Colson’s opportunity to solidify himself as a legit candidate for national player of the year. The 6-foot-6 senior is going to be physically well-matched by the Spartan bigs, and it will be his job to stay aggressive with them. Colson is averaging 20 points and 10.5 rebounds per game, and if he can reach both of those numbers in this game the Irish will be in the mix. Trying to get to the free throw line and get Michigan State into foul trouble will be a major factor in this matchup. Colson also will need to showcase his inside-out game and take a few threes, that’s what makes him so hard to guard.
Michigan State 74 - Notre Dame 68
I do believe that Notre Dame can pull this game off, but they’ll have to be scorching hot from three. The Michigan State front court is just too strong and athletic, and I think Martinas Geben will really have his hands full trying to play with Jackson. Even though Rex Pflueger is a great defender, D.J. Harvey will likely have to play more minutes to help out against Bridges and Ward. Notre Dame’s numbers look great, but they’ve been inflated a little by playing not-so-great teams. Michigan State is already battle tested plus the Irish haven’t played since getting home from Maui. Maybe that’s given them plenty of time to game plan, but it could have also stalled that rhythm they were in. I want to pick the Irish, but my gut is telling me not to. I would love nothing more than to see them prove me wrong, but a loss against a great team will help them in the long run.