Before Michigan State made the trip to Boston, coach Tom Izzo wanted to make sure his team knew what it was getting into.
He cued up film from a second-round game from last year’s NCAA Tournament. He had no doubt his players were familiar with Notre Dame. He also was certain they had no clue about the Northeastern team that pushed the Irish to the brink.
Izzo wanted his team to realize even though they were the No. 1 team in the nation after stacking up 11 straight wins to start the season, they were facing a team that had the potential to bring their early-season success to a halt even if the Spartans had no idea who the Huskies were.
“The game is a major concern for me because people around here don’t have any idea who Northeastern is,” Izzo said.
The anonymity is nothing new for Huskies wingman Quincy Ford.
“A lot of people really don’t know too much about our program or really where we’re located,” Ford said.
When they face Michigan State on Saturday, it will be just the second time in program history the Huskies have faced the nation’s top-ranked team and just the third time that a school from a power conference has come to Matthews Arena. The Huskies have been the underdogs enough times to know that it doesn’t matter once the ball’s tipped.
“Always being the underdog coming into these big-time teams, but once you step on that court, you’ve got to be ready to play, just like we are,” Ford said.
Flying under the radar already has played into the Huskies’ hand this season. It wasn’t even a month ago that Northeastern traveled to Coral Gables and upset then-No. 15 Miami for its first win over a ranked team since 1986.
“Even Miami, they weren’t really familiar with who Northeastern was,” Ford said.
But along with earning the Huskies some stripes, the win was a confidence-builder.
“First and foremost, I think the Miami game gives you confidence that you can play at a high level against a Top 25 opponent,” said Northeastern coach Bill Coen. “Knowing that, how can you improve on that, how can you build on that for the challenges we’ll face on Saturday? I think that’s going to give our guys confidence, that they know they can play at a high level. Whether that’s enough to beat the No. 1 team in the nation, I don’t know. But they’ll know that they can be on the court with them.”
The Huskies (7-3) didn’t need a crash course on Michigan State.
“Statistically, they’re No. 1 in so many different categories,” said Coen. “They’re always one of the best rebounding teams in the country. They share the ball at an incredible rate, which speaks to their team chemistry, their team-first attitude. They’re elite in the offensive transition and they’re just so super solid. They don’t beat themselves and they challenge you on every inch of the court. It’s going to be a mountain to climb.”
The Huskies are well aware that senior point guard Denzel Valentine is the Spartans’ engine, putting up a team high 18.6 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 7.2 assists a night.
“They’re the hottest team in the country by far,” Ford said. “Everything is clicking. Valentine’s an unbelievable player. They’re just doing all the right things.”
Northeastern isn’t short on weapons, including senior guard David Walker, who’s scoring 21.5 points a game, doing most of his damage from beyond the arc. He’s been one the most efficient scorers in the Colonial Athletic Association, shooting 50.8 percent from the floor and 46.4 percent from deep this season.
“If you can do that, it doesn’t matter who you’re playing or where you playing them,” Izzo said.
The Huskies’ weapons — plus their size — sneak up on teams, Ford said.
“I think we’ve surprised a lot of teams,” said the 6-foot-8-inch Ford. “A lot of people really don’t know who we are, but when we step on the court, I think teams are like, ‘Wow, they’ve got some size just like we’ve got some size.’ We match up well against a lot of teams in the country, a lot of the top, major teams.”
The significance of the game for Northeastern is clear. It will be its first sellout since 1995, when NU hosted a top-ranked Duke team. But the Spartans are a win away from setting the program mark for wins to start a season.
“It means nothing in the big picture,” Izzo said. “But for me it means a lot, because I’ve always tried to push for each team to have its own footprint, something it can hang its hat on.”Julian Benbow can be reached at email@example.com.