It’s become a staple of the Tom Izzo era.
In anticipation of a run in the NCAA Tournament, Izzo has developed a reputation for scheduling challenging nonconference matchups to test his program early in the season.
Although many programs schedule winnable games to start their respective seasons to build confidence, Izzo looks to build character against some of the nation’s best teams.
And sometimes, the only option is to rise to the challenge.
In a Georgia Dome atmosphere reminiscent of an NCAA Tournament matchup, the No. 21 Spartans (1-1) upset No. 7 Kansas (1-1), 67-64, in the first game of the State Farm Champions Classic in Atlanta.
The Spartans used a strong second-half rally to secure their first victory of the season, after falling to Connecticut at Ramstein Air Base in Germany last week.
As his team celebrates a tremendous victory — the first of the season — the win serves as a reminder of the culture Izzo has tried to cultivate during his 17 previous years as head coach.
“It is easier to play less talented teams, and it’s safer, but it doesn’t necessarily give you the right perspective,” Izzo said on Monday. “I think I always have decent perspective. What I’m really worried about is my players. If they’re beating up on somebody, what is their perspective?”
The first half was a coming-out party for freshman Gary Harris. A 6-foot-4, 205-pound guard out of Fishers, Ind., Harris demonstrated his five-star talent with 11 points on four-of-six shooting to pace MSU on offense in the half.
However, the Spartans once again were plagued with turnovers, finishing the half with 11 giveaways.
The Jayhawks were quick to capitalize on MSU’s mistakes, netting 12 points off of Spartan turnovers to head into the locker room ahead, 35-32.
Senior guard Elijah Johnson paced Kansas’ scoring with seven points, three rebounds and two steals in the half.
The Spartans ran into trouble early in the second half, when junior center Adreian Payne picked up his fourth foul and was forced to sit for much of the frame.
But MSU was able to charge back, led by the performance of junior guard Keith Appling, who had 16 points in the second half and 19 overall to bring the Spartans back after trailing for much of the game.
Harris also carried his first-half showing into a second-half triumph, adding seven points to finish the game with 18 points.
Johnson and center Jeff Withey set a comfortable pace, giving Kansas the lead with five minutes remaining in the game.
Withey finished the game with eight points and seven rebounds to accompany his four turnovers.
The Detroit native Appling hit a critical 3-pointer with 1:36 to play to surge ahead, 65-61, and a nifty layup in the lane between Withey and forward Kevin Young with 14 seconds remaining to seal the game and the upset for the Spartans.
Kansas guard Travis Releford got a 3-pointer off as time expired, but it hit off the side of the rim to end the action.
Sophomore guard Branden Dawson also contributed to MSU’s offense, finishing with 12 points, three steals and two assists.
Payne and senior center Derrick Nix led the Spartans with eight rebounds apiece on the evening to go along with 12 combined points.
With the win in hand, the Spartans return to Breslin Center for the season’s home opener at 12 p.m. on Sunday against Texas Southern.