December 18, 2015

Michigan State is finally playing its first true road game - just in time for its fans to cozy up in front of the television to watch school history unfold in a comparatively tiny gym in Boston.

After winning their first 11 games, the top-ranked Spartans visit Northeastern on Saturday hoping to match the 2000-01 Final Four team for the best start in school history at a venue with history of its own.

Even Northeastern coach Bill Coen thought it a bit odd for Tom Izzo's behemoth to be making the trip to Matthews Arena, the oldest in men's basketball.

"There aren't too many guys that would take a game off campus, go into a ... mid-major school and play at their level, especially when you're one of the best teams in the country year in and year out," Coen said.

"It's another one of the great historical events that this building has hosted over the last 100 years. ... We're excited about it, and certainly we're concerned. They're No. 1 in the country for a reason - they're really, really good."

Assuming things go well against the Huskies (7-3), the first 13-0 start in school history will also come away, though much closer to home at in-state Oakland on Tuesday before beginning Big Ten play.

Remaining unbeaten was arguably never more difficult than last Saturday's 58-52 home win over Florida. The Spartans shot a season-low 36.8 percent and hit 5 of 25 from 3-point range but saved themselves on the glass, outrebounding the Gators 45-34.

That rebound advantage has been dramatic all season with no team coming closer than a margin of seven for an average of 44.8-27.9. Only SMU (18.0) and Louisville (17.8) top that differential, and Michigan State outrebounded Louisville 40-30 less than three weeks ago.

It also limited Florida to 33.3 percent and 4 of 18 from long range, but that's about in line with the defense the Spartans have played thus far.

"Some guys were struggling offensively, but we could defend and play our hearts out and that's what we did," said Bryn Forbes, who was 1 of 7 from 3 after entering at 49.1 percent. "We can't have our best night every night."

That was true even for Denzel Valentine. The versatile guard was 5 of 17 and 3 of 11 from outside, dropping him to 32.1 percent shooting in the last two games.

"It shows that it doesn't have to be one player," Valentine told the school's official website. "I'm not saying that I'm doing everything for the team every game, because I'm not. It's always a team effort."

He might be getting some help, but the truth is he's also doing everything. The senior is averaging 18.6 points, 8.5 rebounds and 7.2 assists, all of which rank among the top three in the Big Ten.

Northeastern might be more on the level of Florida - which has only lost to ranked opponents - than Michigan State's previous two: Binghamton and Maryland Eastern Shore.

The Huskies' losses have all come away to Miami (Ohio), Detroit and Western Michigan by a total of 10 points. They followed the loss in Ohio with a road win over then-No. 15 Miami, their first over a Top 25 opponent in almost 29 years.

They're still working up to that first win over the nation's top-ranked team, but Northeastern did give then-No. 8 Notre Dame all it could handle as a No. 14 seed in last season's NCAA Tournament, falling 69-65.

Northeastern is coming off last Saturday's 75-62 win over Stony Brook heading into the first sellout at the 5,066-seat Matthews since Duke visited 20 years ago.

Top scorer David Walker was held to 16 points after scoring 31 and 29 in the previous two games. He's a 46.4 percent 3-point shooter, and that's where the Huskies' hope lies against the Spartans. They've hit 44.8 percent in the last five games.

"It's no secret we need to make 3s in order to win," Coen said.

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