Dec. 3, 2013
By Steve Grinczel, MSUSpartans.com On-Line Columnist
EAST LANSING, Mich. - What's wrong with this picture of No. 1 Michigan State tipping off against North Carolina in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge Wednesday night at the Breslin Center?
Despite the disorienting role-reversal - the Tar Heels are unranked in this week's Associated Press Top 25 and are 25th in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches Poll --absolutely nothing, according to senior MSU point guard Keith Appling.
As the 7-0 Spartans continue to get acclimated to the rarified air of their lofty perch for an unprecedented third week, they haven't forgotten where they came from. Nor are they ignorant to the fact that North Carolina's storied program measures its accrued time atop the polls in terms of years.
"I don't pay too much attention to those things because North Carolina has a good enough team to come in here and play us tough for 40 minutes," Appling said. "Rankings really don't really matter. They obviously beat one of the better teams in the country in Louisville, so that shows what their team's capable of."
The Tar Heels' 4-2 record does indeed include a 93-84 victory over the defending national champions, who were ranked third at the time. It also features a loss to Belmont, only their second nonconference loss at home under 11th-year head coach Roy Williams, and Sunday's 63-59 stumble at UAB.
Appling is wary of reading too much into the gap separating MSU from an ORV (others receiving votes) with UNC's pedigree.
"North Carolina's always going to be North Carolina at the end of the day," he said. "At the same time, that has nothing to do with the game on Wednesday."
Michigan State has played the Tar Heels more than any other ACC team and is 3-11 in the series that started in 1957. The last time they played each other, in the 2011-12 season opener at the Carrier Classic in San Diego, North Carolina held the No. 1 ranking and won, 67-55, on the deck of an aircraft carrier.
The Spartans were the higher-ranked team, at No. 9, when they lost at No. 10 UNC in 2009-10. The Tar Heels ended the previous regular season ranked second before upending MSU, 89-72, in the NCAA title game in Detroit.
The last time North Carolina played in East Lansing, the defending national champion Spartans, ranked No. 3, defeated their No. 6-rated visitors, 77-64. A year earlier, No. 8 MSU won at No. 2 North Carolina, 86-76, to generate momentum toward coach Tom Izzo's second Final Four.
Although the Spartans are more accustomed to the role of the underdog in such matchups, their approach hasn't changed this season.
"We don't look down or up at anyone," Appling said. "We just look at each other and try to focus on the task at hand and accomplish our goals as a team."
What has changed is the size of the bull's-eye on MSU's back.
Based on their past accomplishments and reputation, the Spartans expect to get the best punch every less-heralded team they play is capable of delivering. However, that No. 1-ranking has a tendency to inspire the same sort of response even from marquee programs in MSU's peer group.
"It's definitely different," junior point guard Travis Trice said of Michigan State and North Carolina's respective national status. "But I think our team's focused-in enough to where we understand we can't get caught up in that and just have to go out and play our game.
"The thing we are getting used to is that we're going to get everybody's best shot. You can see it while watching the other team warms up. You can tell they have that fire and they're ready to come out wanting to be the ones to upset us and make a splash for themselves."
Saying that if there is an upset in this game, it will be by North Carolina just sounds weird. Besides, no one at MSU is feeling sorry for the Tar Heels these days or sees this as anything other than a red-letter game.
With the Michigan State football team playing in Saturday's Big Ten championship game against Ohio State for the right to go to the Rose Bowl for the first time since the 1987 season, the significance of what's taking place on campus hasn't been lost on Izzo.
"One thing I feel good about in my job is that I've really gotten a chance to live my dream," Izzo said. "But my dream as a Michigan State person, as a member of this community, was always to see the day when we were successful in both sports.
"One win or loss by one of us isn't going to change what we're building here. But that's that dream of why can't you have a successful football and basketball program on the same ground? There's been a couple, but it's few and far between. So I'm living the dream this week."
It's even happened at Michigan State before. In 1957, the year the Spartans reached the Final Four for the first time, only to lose North Carolina 74-70 in triple overtime in the national semifinal, the MSU football team went on to finish 8-1 and win a national championship.