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Chris Solari | Detroit Free Press | December 21, 2018

'Pride on the line' as Michigan State basketball takes on Oakland

EAST LANSING, Mich. β€”Β It has been 20 years since Michigan State and Oakland first met.

The scores have gotten closer since that 30-point win in 1998, but Tom Izzo and the Spartans have beaten Greg Kampe and the Golden Grizzlies in all 16 meetings.

"They give us a game every time they play us," MSU point guard Cassius Winston said after practice Tuesday. "It's a lot of pride on the line, a lot of kids from Michigan and a lot of kids that can play at this (Big Ten) level. They're at Oakland, and they want to come beat us. And we'll do our best to just stop them."

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The nearly annual series resumes Friday when No. 9 MSU hosts Oakland at 7 p.m. on the Big Ten Network.

Here are three things to watch between the Spartans (9-2) and Grizzlies (4-8) at Breslin Center:

Finding rotation

In most Decembers, Izzo is beginning to pare down Michigan State's rotation.

This year, he feels satisfied and comfortable with his Spartans' current eight-man playing group.

"I think right now I've got seven or eight in there," Izzo said after Sunday's 104-83 win over Wisconsin-Green Bay. "And if I've got one of two more who are going to play spot minutes, that's the way it's probably going to be."

Six players are averaging 20-plus minutes, with starting junior guards Winston and Joshua Langford both eclipsing 30 minutes per game. Senior forward Kenny Goins is at 25.7 minutes, senior guard Matt McQuaid is at 25.5 and junior forward Nick Ward at 21.8.

The development of sophomore Xavier Tillman (21.6 minutes), the emergence of junior forward Kyle Ahrens (18.8 minutes) and the energy of freshman swingman Aaron Henry (14.5 minutes) have left few opportunities off the bench for the other newcomers.

Trying to find a way to integrate point guard Foster Loyer, swingman Gabe Brown and forwards Marcus Bingham Jr. and Thomas Kithier has been a challenge for Izzo.

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"I'm not trying to add guys now necessarily because I know you're only going to be able to play so many," Izzo said. "You've got to have eight, and then you've got to have one or two in case you have an injury. I want to make sure we have enough bodies, but I think the biggest chore that our staff has done a very mediocre job with, or I have in the past couple years, is getting a rotation that I can get the minutes straightened out."

Respecting rivalry

MSU has never lost to Oakland and is 10-0 in the series at Breslin.

However, five of the past seven games between the Spartans and Grizzlies since 2010 have been by 13 or fewer points.

The Grizzlies, in the middle of an eight-game road swing, have lost three straight and five of their last six. Xavier Hill-Mais, a 6-foot-7 junior forward, leads them with 22.8 points and 6.4 rebounds per game. Jaevin Cumberland averages 16.3 points, the only other Oakland player scoring in double figures.

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"Kampe, he makes me mad," Izzo said. "He's got talented guys and he's got good teams year after year. And they lose a couple games that they shouldn't, and then they play us better than they play. It's like the Celtics going against the Lakers. ... I think right now, he's got two players that are hard, hard to cover."

Five other Grizzlies average between 6.0 and 9.3 points in Kampe's rotation, though 6 -9 graduate transfer forward Jordan Nobles sat out Tuesday's 81-69 loss at Georgia due to an unresolved academic issue and point guard Brailen Neely left the team late last month.

The closest Oakland got to beating the Spartans was two years ago at The Palace, two weeks after MSU ascended to the No. 1 spot in the polls for the remainder of 2015 but days after Denzel Valentine underwent a knee procedure that forced him out for nearly a month.

Kay Felder pushed the Grizzlies to the verge of a mammoth upset with 37 points, but Bryn Forbes and Eron Harris combined for 59 points and shot the Spartans back from a 15-point deficit to a 99-93 overtime win.

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Last year, the two teams met at Little Caesars Arena, where Winston scored the Spartans' final 14 points in a gritty 86-73 victory. MSU expects a similarly physical game this time around.

"They're a totally different team I think," Langford said after practice Tuesday. "Just the style they play, the way they play, we can take that from last year. It will be a chippy game, just because the Oakland and Michigan State games always are a well-anticipated game."

Series future

Izzo and the Spartans helped Oakland β€”Β in its first year as a Division I school β€”Β open the O'rena on November 17, 1998. MSU won, 96 -- 66, en route to Izzo's first Final Four.

The two schools did not play in 2002-03, 2003-04, 2005-06 and 2011-12.

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However, Friday is the last game of the current contract between MSU and Oakland. The Big Ten's expansion to 20 games means the series could end or take another hiatus.

"I never even knew when it was up, and I never knew when it was up before," Izzo said. "It seems like it just continues. So I would think it would continue."

This article is written by Chris Solari from Detroit Free Press and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.