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Challenge matchup sign of respect for Irish hoops

Tom Noie
South Bend Tribune

Nothing about the recent histories of two college basketball programs made Wednesday’s pairing of No. 19 Michigan State and Notre Dame in the annual ACC/Big Ten Challenge a must-see matchup.

The Spartans have been to six Final Fours and have won a national championship under coach Tom Izzo, who has been named national coach of the year eight times. The Irish have been to one Final Four in school history and haven’t been as far as the Sweet 16 since 2003. Michigan State has won at least 27 games each of the last three seasons and six of the last seven. Notre Dame set a modern-era school record with 27 wins in 2010-11, which earned Mike Brey his lone national coach of the year honor.

The Spartans went 29-9 last season, 12-6 in the Big Ten where they tied for second place. The Irish went 15-17 overall, finished 6-12 and tied for 12th in the Atlantic Coast Conference. They missed postseason play of any kind for the first time since 1998-99.

Television dictates this early-season clash of conferences. The best usually play the best to maximize viewers. Duke and Wisconsin. Syracuse and Michigan. Louisville and Ohio State. But when the annual Challenge matchups were announced May 1, the ACC’s still-relatively newbies were handed a home game against the Big Ten’s gold standard program.

Brey talked last week about how a victory over Michigan State could serve as a “program” win. But just getting the matchup says something about how Notre Dame is viewed nationally.

“The respect for the program, even though we had a disappointing year last year is still very strong in the college basketball world,” Brey said. “The consistency of how we’ve done it here certainly played into this matchup.

“It was kind of a natural to put us together.”

Maybe if it was still the 1970s. Michigan State and Notre Dame once were staples on one another’s basketball schedule for decades. Notre Dame leads the all-time series 59-35, including 35-12 in South Bend. As the college basketball landscape began to change in the 1980s, the series faded.

Wednesday marks the first time the programs have met since the 1979 NCAA tournament. Led by a guy named Magic Johnson, the Spartans beat the Irish, 80-68, in the tournament’s third round at old Market Square Arena in Indianapolis.

Michigan State went on to win the national championship.

Wednesday is the first time the Spartans have been to South Bend since Feb. 5, 1975, a 76-72 State win.

Brey and Izzo often talked of getting some sort of home-and-home series together, but something always got in the way. Once Notre Dame joined the ACC, any chance of a series fizzled. Notre Dame already plays one Big Ten team – Indiana or Purdue – every year in the Crossroads Classic. The ACC/Big Ten Challenge gives them a second Big Ten test. A third doesn’t fit.

“Every time we started to get close, weird things happened,” Izzo said of a potential matchup. “It’s been one that I thought would be great for college basketball and great for the two programs.”

“We haven’t played in (35) years,” Brey said. “It will probably be another (35) before we play again, unless they match us up again.”

Brey doesn’t expect that to happen next year or even the year after. Future ACC/Big Ten Challenge games against Illinois, Michigan and even Northwestern would make a whole lot of sense and keep fan interest high. Notre Dame’s Challenge game next season likely will be on the road. Izzo wouldn’t mind seeing Notre Dame next December in East Lansing.

“It’s advantageous for both of us,” he said of playing the Irish. “Hopefully it will be something we can do more than once.”

Eyeing Izzo

The college coaching career paths of Brey and Izzo first crossed when both were assistants working many of the same recruiting trails. Both spent a whole lot of time together in Detroit Country Day gym during the 1990s trying to recruit the school’s star player, Chris Webber. Izzo was at Michigan State while Brey was at Duke.

Both became head coaches for the first time in the same year – 1995. They have spent time together on the National Association of Basketball Coaches board of directors.

But Wednesday is the first time that Brey and Izzo will coach against one another.

“Mike and I are good friends,” Izzo said.

“One of the good guys in the business who’s a fabulous coach, certainly a Hall of Fame guy,” Brey said of Izzo. “He’s just a regular guy.”

A regular guy who’s won. A lot. Izzo is the winningest coach in school history (473 wins and counting in 20 years) and third-winningest in Big Ten history. His teams have won seven Big Ten championships and sent 13 players on to the NBA draft, six as first-round picks.

The Spartans succeed at a high level year after year sans flash and flair. It’s always about toughness. Always.

“It’s a workmanlike program – we’re going to defend; we’re going to rebound,” Brey said. “Tom is consistent with, ‘This is the culture of our program.’

“One of the guys you pull for, except when you’re playing him.”

Beachem a boost

As a freshman trying to figure it all out last season, swingman V.J. Beachem never really did find a role that fit him – was he a shooter? A slasher? Could he use his long and lanky 6-foot-8 frame to defend?

How about a little of everything?

One play early in the first half of Saturday’s 48-point victory over Chicago State showed how Beachem has settled into his role as sixth man this season.

Contesting out on the perimeter, Beachem used his long arms to deflect a Chicago State pass, which led to an Irish transition opportunity. Beachem ran to the 3-point line, took a pass from classmate Demetrius Jackson and dropped in a 3 to give the Irish an 11-point lead.

It was a play that Beachem likely wouldn’t have made last season.

“That’s getting to be more of a veteran-looking guy when he makes that play,” Brey said. “I want him to go for it.”

Seven games into his sophomore season, Beachem is averaging 8.4 points (fifth-best on the squad) and 1.4 rebounds in 16.0 minutes. He’s shooting 57.1 percent from the field and 55.6 percent from 3.

After scoring 59 points with nine 3-pointers all last season, Beachem already has 64 points and 15 3s.

“I love that he’s scoring,” Brey said. “He’s shooting it so confidently. The ability to have another shot-maker out there that stretches the defense gives us another weapon.”

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has long wanted to schedule Notre Dame, but hasn't had the opportunity for myriad reasons.AP File Photo