Tough schedule emboldens Spartans for Big Ten grind

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
MSU coach Tom Izzo

East Lansing — Tom Izzo has never shied away from playing the toughest teams.

In fact, since he took over at Michigan State in 1995, he’s followed the same principal.

“I'm going to still play anybody, any place, any time,” Izzo said on Thursday at Michigan State’s media day.

The slate will once again be tough for the Spartans. The Big Ten, alone, is a grind. Even more so this season as the conference has gone to 20 games.

But Michigan State opens the season against No. 1 Kansas at the Champions Classic  Nov. 6 — the third time in five years it has faced the top-ranked team in that event — and adds games against the likes of UCLA, Louisville, Florida and potentially North Carolina over the next six weeks.

“The schedule is going to be extremely challenging again,” Izzo said. “No big surprise except not one of those games are at home. Everybody's on the road. We, of course, open with Kansas. … We still have Carolina in the top 10 that we potentially could play and UCLA in there. Then going to places like Louisville and Florida are going to be very difficult but also, I think, going to give us a lot of knowledge in where we are, what we've got to get better at. It's helped us in the past. I see it helping us again this year.”

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At least one site already ranks Michigan State’s strength of schedule in the top five based on preseason rankings, though that is sure to change as the season progresses.

However, the approach isn’t changing as Izzo intends to challenge his team, something he’ll do even more so this season with a closed scrimmage against Gonzaga this weekend instead of an exhibition game against a Division II team.

“I just think we play an unbelievable schedule and have done it for all 24 years,” Izzo said. “I bet you our worst schedule in 24 years is better than most teams' best. I guess I'm proud of that. I look at the number of ranked teams … I think we still lead in the last 20 years or whatever, playing the most ranked teams. That causes me to be upset. That causes media disturbance. That causes me not to sleep. In the end, it's usually made us better.”

Wide open Big Ten

The Big Ten is tough to pick this season, but most have tabbed Michigan State as the favorite.

One of the teams expected to challenge is Michigan, which reached the national title game last season. But Izzo sees the conference is wide open.

“I think that sounds good on paper, but I think you'd agree that — you know, there's more good teams in our league than there were last year,” Izzo said. “And I think some of them are going to be surprise teams. I think Michigan's going to be good. I think Nebraska is going to be really good. They've got a lot of people back. I'm surprised Wisconsin isn't picked higher. They've got a lot of people back. They had two guys with big-time injuries sitting out that are back. I think Iowa's got five out of six or six out of seven back. I think some of us get the benefit of the doubt because we have some teams that year after year have been in the championship hunt.

“There's some guys on the block now. I think Indiana is going to be much, much improved from last year. They had a couple of injuries. So, I think the league is good. I think it's great for the state that there is two teams in our state that are both predicted to be pretty good. We've just got to live up to the billing.”

Four spot mystery

Izzo doesn’t have much time to decide his starters for the first game, but there doesn’t seem to be much to consider. Juniors Nick Ward, Cassius Winston and Joshua Lanford are sure things, as is senior Matt McQuaid.

It’s the four spot that’s up for grabs while Izzo also contemplates how much freshmen Foster Loyer, Gabe Brown, Aaron Henry, Marcus Bingham and Thomas Kithier play.

“That's going to be really interesting, you know, because those freshmen are going to take a little time, I think,” Izzo said. “I think Aaron is the most ready, and I think Foster has to be ready just because of the backup to the point. But I really think if we went tomorrow we would start the three juniors. I think McQuaid would probably start. And then the coin flip is Kenny or Xavier (Tillman), and Xavier might start, but I think he gives us more off the bench. So I'm going to have to look at that.”