N.C. State at Michigan State
N.C. State (4-1) bounced back from a home loss to New Orleans to win three games in Lake Buena Vista, Florida and capture the Old Spice Classic championship. The Wolfpack beat Rider by nine points before edging South Carolina 63-61 in the semi-finals and Villanova 69-68 in the final. Those tough games on away from home should have the ‘Pack ready to go into East Lansing and do battle with the Michigan State Spartans in what has to be considered one of the ACC’s toughest ACC-Big 10 Challenge matchups.
The Wolfpack are hoping to do one better in terms of the post-season tournament they participated in last season. N.C. State won two games in the NIT (at Drexel and home against Marist) before being denied a spot in the semi-finals at Madison Square Garden by West Virginia. Overall the Wolfpack went 20-16, but just a disappointing 5-11 in the ACC.
Second-year head coach Sidney Lowe has a much better squad to work with this year. Brandon Costner emerged as one of the best low-post players in the conference and he will be even better in 2007-2008. Costner will get immediate help from highly-touted freshman J.J. Hickson of Atlanta and fellow frosh Tracy Smith should also be able to contribute immediately. Senior Gavin Grant and juniors Ben McCauley and Courtney Fells are all outstanding players and will provide veteran leadership that was lacking a year ago. If Lowe gets solid play out of the point guard position, this Wolfpack team will be tough to beat because the frontcourt looks overwhelming.
Michigan State (4-1) is battle-tested just like N.C. State. Participating in the CBE Classic, the Spartans cruised to two home victories in the early rounds before making their way to Kansas City for the semi-finals and final. In the semis MSU got by a tough Missouri team 86-83. The Spartans then took on No. 2 (currently co-No. 1 with UNC) UCLA in the championship game and they gave the Bruins all they could handle before falling 68-63. It should be noted that UCLA was without point guard Darren Collison, but that should not take away from Michigan State’s solid effort against of the best teams—Collison or no Collison—in the nation.
The Spartans are aiming to build upon a season in which they picked up an impressive win over Marquette in a first-round 8-9 game in the NCAA Tournament before losing to North Carolina. Michigan State posted an even 8-8 record in the tough Big 10 and went 23-12 overall.
With senior guard Drew Neitzel back to run the show for coach Tom Izzo, fans in East Lansing should be expecting bigger and better things this season. Senior center Drew Naymick gives the Spartans experience not only in the backcourt with Neitzel, but also in the frontcourt. Sophomore stud Raymar Morgan, a 6-7 small forward, provides a huge scoring punch and he is already leading the team at 17.4 points per game this year (he’s also pulling down 8.4 rebounds).
Both of these teams are talented, but the difference should be Michigan State’s experience and home-court advantage. N.C. State must assert itself down low and get the advantage there in order to have a chance, because Morgan and Neitzel could dominate the rest of the floor. As long as the Wolfpack guards play relatively mistake-free basketball, this one will be close throughout. The home crowd will pull the Spartans through in the end of a hard-fought battle.
The pick: Michigan State by 5.