While two of the elite teams in the country will be meeting for the 97th time on Thursday, they've rarely seen each other for nearly four decades. The marquee matchup of two Top 5 teams in the ACC/Big Ten challenge will be just the second time they've faced each other since 1979.
No. 5 Notre Dame (6-0) hasn't played on Michigan State's campus since February 1974. The Spartans' Hall of Fame coach said he has had little success trying to schedule quality non-conference opponents outside of tournaments and made-for-TV events.
The No. 3 Spartans (5-1) have already played two such games, falling to No. 1 Duke on Nov. 15 and defeating No. 9 North Carolina on Sunday to win their bracket in the PK80 tournament in Portland, Ore.
"It speaks volumes for our schedule," Izzo, 62, said. "I think it's going to still help us in the long run. You get a better idea of what your team is like. We've definitely seen some strengths of our team and we've definitely seen some warts on our team."
The Spartans' defense was airtight against the Tar Heels in the 63-45 victory, holding them to 24.6 percent shooting while forcing 16 turnovers. That allowed Michigan State to overcome 24 turnovers of their own.
Michigan State won three games in the tournament despite an ankle sprain to their top player, sophomore forward Miles Bridges. He missed one game and was limited in the others. He scored 11 points in 26 minutes on Sunday.
"He wasn't 100 percent," Izzo said. "We'll get him back on track. We've got to get him more involved and we've got to get Jaren (Jackson) more involved in the offense."
The 6-foot-11 Jackson, the team's top recruit, is averaging 10.0 points and 7.5 shots per game. He'll draw the toughest defensive assignment, facing senior forward Bonzie Colson. The Player of the Year candidate is averaging 20.0 points and 10.5 rebounds.
"He's a 6-6 guy that just does a lot of things well and doesn't do anything beyond what he can do," Izzo said. "It will be another challenge for us to guard one of the best in the country. How do you get better practice than doing that at a young age? The kid (Jackson) just turned 18 years old."
The Irish are also coming off a major tournament victory, vaulting them into the Top 5. They staged a late rally to defeat No. 6 Wichita State 67-66 in the Maui Jim Maui championship game on Thanksgiving.
"I think it's a big confidence builder when you can win an in-season tournament," Fighting Irish coach Mike Brey said. "We won the Legends Classic last year, but this is the premier tournament. To win the Maui Classic, this is THE tournament. Everybody watches this one."
Senior point guard and tournament MVP Matt Farrell made the pivotal play of the game, stealing an inbounds pass and feeding Colson for a layup in the final minute to cut the Shockers' lead to one. Farrell averaged 19.6 points and 5.0 assists in Maui.
"When you have two guys like that, they make me a better coach," Brey said. "You talk about them being calm -- they're flat-out assassins. They're killers. They're amazingly competitive. They've got that edge."