The Michigan State Spartans have historically, under Tom Izzo, hit a stride around late January and into the conference tournaments and NCAA Tournament. This season, after losing a few key players from their previous teams like Denzel Valentine and Matt Costello, the Spartans will have new faces trying to make big impacts on the program.
While we’d think that there is no game in a major conference like the Big Ten that will be easy, if you break down the Spartans conference schedule, it certainly would seem like they’ve caught a break with the schedule this season with the rotation it’s on.
Three of the Spartans first five conference games will be played in East Lansing against some of the teams that very likely will be nowhere near the top of the conference standings at the end of the year. They open on the road at Minnesota, which at times can be a very difficult place to play, despite the Golden Gophers recent struggles. With freshman like Miles Bridges, Josh Langford and Cassius Winston, it will definitely be interesting to see how they might respond to a conference road environment. After their visit to Minneapolis, they return home for two games against Northwestern and Rutgers. They will then travel to Happy Valley to play a Penn State team that is always very tough to predict, and Pat Chambers has started to build something at Penn State that could make this a very interesting game. They will then return home to play their second meeting of the year against the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
After this five game stretch, the Spartans will likely face their toughest stretch of conference play. They travel to Ohio State and Indiana on January 15th and 21st respectively for a pair of games that could present some interesting challenges to the Spartans. Last year, Ohio State was a very difficult team to predict, it will be intriguing to see which Buckeye team shows up for Sparty, and any Tom Izzo - Thad Matta coaching matchup will be fun to watch in a ‘Which one’s face will turn a cooler shade of purple?’ contest. The trip afterwards to Indiana will present some obvious challenges for the Spartans. James Blackmon Jr., Thomas Bryant, Robert Johnson, O.G. Anunoby, these are all dynamic players that the Spartans will have to match up with in one of the most raucous environments you’ll find around the country.
Following those two games, the competition doesn’t get much easier for Michigan State, but they get to return home. They head back to East Lansing to await the Purdue Boilermakers, a team that has a lot of hype surrounding it and a front court that can cause anybody difficulty. After their meeting with the Boilers, they will play their rival the Michigan Wolverines at home in a game that will always be circled on the schedule. After that, they head back out on the road for meetings with the Nebraska Cornhuskers in Lincoln, and another meeting with the Wolverines in Ann Arbor.
That six game stretch certainly appears to be the toughest slate of the conference schedule for the Spartans. They then host Iowa, a team who will likely be in more of a rebuilding mode, though Peter Jok will certainly cause some problems. They’ll host Ohio State for their second meeting before traveling to West Lafayette for their second meeting with the Boilers in an environment they suffered a really tough loss last season. When they get through that, they return home for their second meeting with Nebraska before their only meeting with the Wisconsin Badgers at home in what will almost certainly be an extremely important game with conference championship implications. The Spartans finish their conference schedule with road trips to Champaign to face Illinois and a very interesting road trip to College Park to play a Maryland Terrapins team that has plenty of questions, but also plenty of talent led by stud point guard Melo Trimble.
While the Spartans will be plenty tested by their non-conference schedule and will absolutely see difficult matchups and environments in the conference as well, they seem to have been fairly fortunate in only facing two of the three conference favorites once in the Indiana Hoosiers and Wisconsin Badgers. With questions about the quality of size the Spartans might have, especially with the injury news of Ben Carter, guys like Thomas Bryant, Ethan Happ/Nigel Hayes and Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas could provide some big time answers. It will be very interesting to see how Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo plans on dealing with some of the elite big men around the conference, and these games in particular will certainly give some clarity for Spartans fans.