As notorious and daunting as Big Ten Conference Basketball can be, the Michigan State Spartans tend to have a non-conference schedule that prepares them greatly for the latter half of the college basketball season. After facing Top 25 teams in Duke, Notre Dame, and Kansas before the Big Ten season started last season, Michigan State was prepared to make a run at the Big Ten Title. This season will be no different. While the Spartans' full schedule has yet to be released, we already know of some particularly tough games that Izzo will play this upcoming season.
For the second straight season, Tom Izzo's Spartans take on the burden of facing Bill Self's always-dangerous Jayhawks, this time in the Champions Classic. Both teams are coming off losses to Duke and Kentucky respectively, and neither team wants to drop two straight in the highly-acclaimed preseason tournament. Kansas returns a solid array of talent. Self's Jayhawks will feature returning guards Wayne Selden Jr. and Frank Mason. In the frontcourt, Kansas keeps powerhouse Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor, and the Jayhawks add freshman Carlton Bragg into the mix to create one of the most formidable lines of big men in the country.
The Spartans could have a tough time keeping up with Kansas' bigs (*cough Caleb Swanigan *cough), but it still has the available weapons to get a solid win in the early going. Returners Matt Costello and Gaivn Schilling are certainly no pushovers, and incoming freshman Deyonta Davis may have something to say about Kansas' dominant frontcourt. Factor in the matchup of Denzel Valentine and rising star Selden Jr, and we've got ourselves one heck of a game.
The non-conference slate of Michigan State's schedule will feature an ACC/B1G Challenge face-off with the Louisville Cardinals in East Lansing. A rematch of last year's Elite Eight game, a Spartan victory that sent Izzo and company to the Final Four, this game will feature more than juts passion and grit, but also a chance for Cardinal revenge. A late free throw miss by Mangok Mathiang sent last year's matchup to overtime, where Travis Trice and the Spartans led the whole way. Trice is gone, but Mathiang is back, and what better way to avenge an Elite Eight loss than beating the Spartans on their own floor? Michigan State will sure have something to say about that.
The Cardinals suffered some heavy blows in the last few months; after Chris Jones was kicked off the team, Montrezl Harrell, Terry Rozier, and Wayne Blackshear are all pursuing the next steps in their careers. What's left is a large question mark in a talented recruiting class and a few returners for Rick Pitino. Quentin Snider, Louisville's soon-to-be starting point guard, could be a huge difference maker in this one. Can he keep up with Eron Harris and Michigan State's solid backcourt, Louisville could hang with the Spartans.
A potential matchup against Arizona looms as the Spartans and Wildcats sit on opposite ends of the Direct TV Wooden Legacy Pre-Season Tournament Bracket. If both teams manage to make it to the Championship Game of the 8-team bracket, then we may have ourselves one of the best games of the entire non-conference season. Arizona lost a lot. There is no denying that, on paper, they are not the same Wildcats team as they were last year. Stanley Johnson, T.J. McConnell, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Brandon Ashley are all gone, and forward Kaleb Tarczewski and guard Gabe York are left to lead a team that will bring in a lot of newcomers.
Sean Miller will undoubtedly remain in contention for a national title, as Arizona always finds a way to emerge as a powerhouse out west. That being said, they are certainly beatable, and a matchup against the Spartans would be very intriguing to watch. Look for these two to meet in the Wooden Legacy Championship game and battle it out for a huge early season victory.