BOWLING GREEN — Former Michigan State men’s basketball coach Jud Heathcote said he would never again bring his teams to Anderson Arena when the No. 5 Spartans lost there in 1990.
Technically, that’s a promise that won’t be broken when the Spartans and Falcons meet today, because the game will be played at the Stroh Center and it’s one of Heathcote’s assistants, Tom Izzo, who now is in charge at MSU.
Still, Bowling Green State University coach Louis Orr realizes that this 7 p.m. contest is the biggest men’s basketball game the two-year-old arena has hosted.
“This is a great opportunity for not only our players, but for our university and our fans,” Orr said. “This doesn’t always happen; usually you have to play at the Michigan States of the world.
“When you get an opportunity to play them at home, it is special.”
The No. 20 Spartans (9-2) are the first nationally ranked men’s squad to play at the Stroh Center, although they dropped a spot despite winning their lone game last week.
“You hope your guys get excited for every game, but the reality is some games jump out at you more, and this is one of those games,” said Orr, whose team is 5-4. “For all of our players, the opportunity to play Michigan State at home is an exciting opportunity.”
The Falcons are familiar with the Spartans, having played them in each of the last two seasons. Two years ago BG trailed 25-19 at the break before getting outscored 49-20 in the second half. Last season the Spartans led just 35-33 at halftime before a 20-3 run early in the second period was just too much for the Falcons to overcome in a 74-60 loss.
“The second halves, especially the first five minutes of the half, have been the difference in the games,” Orr said. “In the first half, we’ve played even with them for the most part.
“But you’ve got to play for 40 minutes, play well and do what you do.”
Michigan State is led offensively by Keith Appling, a junior guard who averages 15.5 points per game. Freshman guard Gary Harris has contributed 12.7 points per contest, while sophomore wing Branden Dawson also is in double figures at 10.1 points per game.
The Spartans are especially strong on the boards, outrebounding opponents by a margin of 38.6 to 28.8 boards per game. Junior Adreian Payne (7.7 rebounds per game) and junior Derrick Nix (7.5) lead MSU in that area.
“They are plus-10 on the boards — they have been outrebounding their opponents by 10, and that’s a lot,” Orr said. “You know that is something that coach Izzo preaches, both offensive and defensive rebounding.
“And you look at them in transition, and how quickly they go from offense to defense — whether it’s a miss or a make. They push the ball and put pressure on you.”
The Spartans also are rugged defensively, allowing opponents to shoot just 36.3 percent from the field to rank 13th among Division I schools. MSU allows just 56.4 points per game, which is the 17th-best total in the country.
“With a team like Michigan State, you may not get five good [looks] in a possession,” Orr said. “You may have to take the first good shot — without taking a rushed, bad shot.
“You run your offense to get certain shots, and when you get them you have to be ready to shoot them and knock them down.”
Offensively the Falcons have leaned heavily on seniors Jordon Crawford and A’uston Calhoun. Crawford leads the team with 16.3 points per game and averages two 3-pointers made per contest, while Calhoun, who needs just two points to reach the 1,000-point plateau for his career, is averaging 16.1 points per game.
Because of final exams last week, the Falcons had 10 days between this contest and their last game, a home win over Samford on Dec. 8. Orr said his team used that break to focus on improving rather than preparing for the Spartans. One area of focus was improving on BG’s shooting as the Falcons are making just 39.8 percent of their shots from the floor and 29.2 percent of their 3-pointers.
“We’ve worked on our offense a decent amount,” he said. “We feel that’s an area of growth for us in terms of execution.
“We worked on tempo, because the teams we played didn’t get up and down the floor as much as Michigan State will try to. And we’ve got some guys [who were injured] back practicing, like Jehvon [Clarke], Anthony [Henderson], and Spencer [Parker], so we’re getting those guys up to speed.”
Contact John Wagner at: firstname.lastname@example.org, 419-724-6481 or on Twitter @jwagnerblade.