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December 17, 2012EAST LANSING - Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo wanted a 'big' test for his No. 20-ranked Spartans prior to opening the Big Ten season on Dec. 31 at Minnesota.
Izzo will probably get his wish at 2 p.m. on Saturday, in the form of a Texas-sized exam, when MSU (10-2) hosts a Longhorns team fresh off an upset win over No. 23 North Carolina.
"I really am (glad that Texas played so well) because I think there were some people the last couple of days talking about Texas not being very good,'' Izzo said. "They bring so many good athletes and they bring size. They bring guards that will fire it so I think it's going to be a tough prep and a tough guard. So it gives us a chance to play a team like none we've played.
"It's what we need because we know this is going to be a war. I think it will be one of the best games at Breslin in while. This is a very important game for us.''
The Spartans, who have been engaging in double-session practices during the Christmas break, will be facing a Texas team that is full of confidence, and supported by strong guard play and a big front line.
Up until their 85-67 victory over the Tar Heels, Rick Barnes' Longhorns looked like a team more suited for a spot in the NIT instead of the NCAA Tournament after a loss to Division II Chaminade and a 23-point setback to Georgetown.
But the 7-4 Longhorns may have kick-started their season with their wake-up call victory over North Carolina. And now, they will be bringing their physically intimidating frontcourt to Breslin Arena for an ESPN2 televised showdown with the Spartans.
"After watching Texas (on Wednesday night), if anybody didn't think they were a good team . . . I mean they demoralized North Carolina in every way, shape and form. I think what you saw early was a team that was struggling without a point guard and this freshman (Javan Felix) has gotten better, and they have great athletes. So if they were coming in here 9-2 or something, everybody would look at them a little differently. We have our work cut out for us Saturday.''
While it may look like the Spartans would have an edge in the backcourt, especially, with the combo of Keith Appling, Gary Harris and Travis Trice, Texas' guards have stepped up their play of late. Appling leads the way for MSU with 15 points a game.
Despite a combined 33.9 points a contest from it's backcourt MSU will need to take it up another notch, especially when you consider that Texas will visit East Lansing without potentially their best player in sophomore guard Myck Kabongo - who was suspended for the remainder of the season until further notice because of his potential contact with an agent.
"We do need to let it fly but you've got have the right guys flying it,'' Izzo said. "Harris has got to look for his shot more for sure and I think Appling has to look for his shot more too.''
Despite Kabongo's absence, 6-foot-3 junior guard Julien Lewis stepped forward with a 16-point game against the Tar Heels, while his backcourt mate, 6-4 sophomore Sheldon McClellan led the way with 18 in the win.
McClellan is Texas' leading scorer at 15.5 points a game, while Lewis is second at 11.6 points a contest.
While Izzo acknowledges that Texas still has strong guard play even without Kabongo, the Longhorns' frontline, which not only carries size but bulk, is what seems to concern him the most.
Johnathan Holmes and Cameron Ridley enter Saturday's contest as the Longhorns' primary threats inside. Holmes, a 6-7, 239-pound sophomore, averages 7.3 points and 8 rebounds a game, while Ridley, a 6-9, 270-pound freshman, adds 6.3 points and 5.5 boards a contest.
"They definitely did the job on the boards (against North Carolina), so we're going to have to do the job on the boards and get better at it,'' Izzo said.
Texas also has European big man Loannis Papapetrou, who, at 6-8, could cause some matchup problems because he has the classic European skill set, being a big man who is comfortable with the face-up jump shot.
Although Papapetrou comes off the bench, he is Texas' fifth leading scorer at 7.1 points a game.
No matter what interior rotation Barnes employs inside, MSU is going to need strong efforts from senior center Derrick Nix and junior center Adreian Payne.
Nix is averaging 7.5 points and 7.5 rebounds a game, while Payne, who has adjusted well to his latest role of coming off the bench, is averaging 8.3 points and 7.5 boards an outing.
The Spartans are outrebounding opponents by a margin of 10.8 a game, while Texas holds a plus-2.9 advantage over their foes in rebounding.
MSU is coming off a mediocre performance on the boards during Tuesday's 64-53 victory at Bowling Green. The Spartans out-rebounded BGSU by a mere 40-39 margin.
"It's going to be interesting to see how our bigs do in this game because I put it on them (Thursday) morning because this game is going to be won, as they say in football, in the trenches,'' Izzo said. "And our trenches are that green area (in the paint).''
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