Mountaineers face uphill climb in clash with top-ranked Spartans

East Lansing, MI ( - The nation's No. 1 team returns home to East Lansing on Friday afternoon, as the Michigan State Spartans take on the Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers at the Breslin Center.

Mount St. Mary's season opened up with a five-game road trip, and it fell flat with that tall task by losing every matchup to dig itself an early-season hole. The Mountaineers are slowly but surely getting themselves back on the right track however, as they have captured two straight wins against American University (68-64) and Bucknell (69-64).

Michigan State is the nation's top-ranked team for the second straight week, and while it has been placed in the top-10 in 15 of Tom Izzo's 19 seasons as head coach, this marks just the second time it has ever been No. 1, also doing so early in the 2000-01 campaign. The Spartans' biggest win was versus then- No. 1 Kentucky on Nov. 12, 78-74. They also claimed the championship in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic last weekend by defeating Virginia Tech (96-77) and Oklahoma (87-76) at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn.

The teams met once before in the first round of the 1999 NCAA Tournament, with Michigan State winning, 76-53.

The Mountaineers were able to run past Bucknell in their latest game by shooting a lofty 54.2 percent from the floor while committing only five turnovers. Rashad Whack paced the effort with 22 points on 8-of-12 shooting, while Julian Norfleet added 13 points and seven assists. Sam Prescott also netted 13 points and grabbed seven rebounds.

Unfortunately for Mount St. Mary's, it has not made a habit of piecing together strong scoring outputs, as it nets less than 42 percent of its field goal tries for 69.9 points per game. Norfleet has been able to overcome the struggles of most of his teammates by pouring in 18.7 points per game, doing so on 46.8 percent from field, although he could stand to improve upon his accuracy from beyond the arc (.296). Norfleet runs a solid point as well by giving out 5.4 assists per contest. Rashad Whack (15.0 ppg) and Prescott (10.4 ppg) have also been impressive.

In the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic title game, Michigan State overcame an early 11-point deficit by closing the first half on a 34-9 burst to take a 14-point advantage into intermission, and it never surrendered the advantage from that point forward. The squad, which shot 50 percent from the field and won the rebounding battle (41-32), was led by a 27-point effort from Keith Appling. Gary Harris netted 21 points despite a mediocre night from 3-point range (3- of-10), and Branden Dawson logged a double-double with 18 points and 10 rebounds.

Unsurprisingly, the Spartans have played great in all facets of the game this season, boasting a +16.7 scoring margin, a +4.8 rebounding margin and a +3.8 turnover margin, all while shooting a lofty 48.4 percent from the floor. Harris is out in front for the team-lead in scoring with 17.7 points per game, although Adreian Payne (17.2 ppg) and Appling (16.8 ppg) are right on his tail. Payne is the rare big man who is just as effective in the paint (8.0 rpg, 1,5 bpg) as he is on the perimeter (8-of-17 from 3-point range), and Appling gets his teammates involved with 5.7 assists per outing. Dawson (11.0 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 1.7 spg) is a well-rounded swingman who shoots nearly 60 percent from the floor.