December 11, 2015

Michigan State routinely assembles a rigorous nonconference schedule in order to prepare it for the Big Ten slate and the tough competition it expects to face in March.

The top-ranked Spartans have mowed through their opponents on their way to their second-best start in 20 years under coach Tom Izzo, and the squad's last test before the conference season is Saturday night's home date with Florida.

Michigan State (10-0) has scored neutral-site victories over then-No. 4 Kansas on Nov. 17 as well as Providence, which checked in at No. 15 in this week's Top 25, on Nov. 27.

Three nights later at home, it beat now-No. 22 Louisville in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge before a pair of 33-point wins over Binghamton last Saturday and Maryland-Eastern Shore on Wednesday.

Guard Denzel Valentine, averaging a team-best 18.8 points, is looking to bounce back after scoring 11 and shooting 4 of 11 against the Hawks. He's totaled 24 points in the past two games, though he's also grabbed 22 rebounds in that span.

The Spartans have ascended to the top ranking after starting at No. 13, the biggest rise this quickly in a season since Arizona jumped from 17th to No. 1 in the first five weeks of 1987-88. They haven't started this well since winning their first 12 of 2000-01 as defending national champions.

Michigan State beat Florida in the 2000 title game, and Izzo has invited that Spartans team to East Lansing to be honored Saturday.

After facing the Gators (6-2), the Spartans play at Northeastern on Dec. 19 and take on Oakland, Michigan in Detroit on Dec. 22. Big Ten play opens Dec. 29 at Iowa.

''The party is over now,'' Izzo said. ''The next three games are going to get tougher and tougher.''

Michigan State's biggest strengths have been its depth and chemistry. The Spartans had 25 assists on 27 baskets Wednesday and lead the nation in assisting on 80.0 percent of their makes.

"That kind of tells you as good a statement about what kind of team we've got as anything," Izzo said.

First-year Florida coach Mike White isn't speaking quite so glowingly of his squad. The Gators are shooting 42.2 percent after going 22 of 57 from the field and 1 of 12 from 3-point range in Tuesday's 66-55 road loss to No. 17 Miami.

''We're searching for an offensive identity,'' White said. "We knew this team coming into the season was very inexperienced in so many different ways, especially offensively."

John Egbunu scored 14 points but starting guards Kasey Hill and KeVaughn Allen combined to go 3 of 14 from the floor and totaled eight points. A better performance won't be easy against a Michigan State team that ranks fifth in the nation in field-goal percentage defense at 35.3.

"We just have to believe in each other that the ball will go in - sooner or later," forward Devin Robinson said. "When it's not, we just have to play defense, get stops and eventually the ball will go our way."

Florida's other defeat was 85-70 to Purdue - now 11th in the poll - Nov. 22. That's the Gators' highest point total allowed this season, but the Boilermakers are the only team to shoot better than 40 percent against Florida.

"They really, really defend tough - more like Purdue," Izzo said. "It will be interesting to see how we move the ball.

"It's going to be a big game for us. They've got a couple losses, but I think it's a very good team."

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