A seemingly insignificant nonconference game has suddenly taken on greater importance for Michigan State.
The No. 3 Spartans will likely gain the top spot in next week's AP poll with a win over heavy underdog Binghamton on Saturday at the Breslin Center.
UCLA's upset of top-ranked Kentucky on Thursday and Maryland's loss at North Carolina on Tuesday has cleared the way for Michigan State (8-0) to earn its first No. 1 distinction since a three-week stint from Nov. 18-Dec. 8, 2013. That's assuming the Spartans get past the apparently overmatched Bobcats, who are 0-10 all-time against ranked opponents and haven't come within 21 points in any of those games.
Michigan State furthered its case with Wednesday's 71-67 win over No. 24 Louisville, its third victory over a current Top 25 team. The Spartans downed No. 4 Kansas in the Nov. 17 Champions Classic in Chicago and 23rd-ranked Providence in Sunday's Wooden Legacy tournament title game.
The Spartans stayed unbeaten by surviving a stern test in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, where they trailed Louisville by 13 early on and didn't take the lead for good until Denzel Valentine's 3-pointer with 5:06 left snapped a 58-all tie.
"I feel fortunate to win," coach Tom Izzo said. "I almost feel like we stole it, and you got to do that in order to have a great season. I wouldn't say we didn't deserve to, because we fought back, but I thought they played awfully well for a long period of time in that game."
Michigan State received its usual lift from Valentine, who scored 11 of his 25 points in the final 5:06, and an unexpected one from Kenny Goins. The seldom-used freshman collected a career-high 13 rebounds in 18 minutes.
''Kenny played out of his mind,'' Valentine said. ''I didn't know he had that in him. I just told him he earned my respect the way he battled.''
After earning three tough wins in a six-day span, the Spartans figure to have a less stressful time against Binghamton (2-4), which went 6-26 while having four freshmen start at least 18 games last season.
The Bobcats are beginning to see the benefits of that youth movement, having won two of three after an 0-3 start. They come in off their most impressive effort, a 69-50 win over Colgate on Tuesday.
"We're growing up in the sense that I really felt like everybody in our program felt like we needed to win," coach Tommy Dempsey said. "I felt like we were really prepared defensively and we came out an executed very well on the defensive end. That was the key to the game."
After limiting Colgate to 3 of 22 from 3-point range, Binghamton now faces two of the nation's top long-range shooters in Valentine (20.5 points per game) and guard Bryn Forbes, who went 5 of 9 from beyond the arc in a season-high 20-point performance against Louisville.
The Bearcats are led by sophomore forward Willie Rodriguez, shooting 60.6 percent while averaging 21.0 points over the 2-1 stretch.