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East Lansing — With the month of December finally in the rearview mirror, it’s time to get back to work for Michigan State, not to mention the rest of the Big Ten.

After playing just three games in a little more than three weeks, it’s time for conference play to resume for the Spartans as the Big Ten continues navigating its 20-game schedule after each team played two games back in late November and early December.

For No. 8 Michigan State things tip off at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday with Northwestern visiting the Breslin Center followed by a trip to Ohio State on Saturday. It offers the Spartans (11-2, 2-0 Big Ten) a chance to take advantage of the two early conference victories and continue working toward defending their regular-season championship.

“It's big time and going to be really important,” senior forward Kenny Goins said. “We need to win all of our home games, so we need to come out strong against Northwestern. Ohio State always gives us fits down there. I think those first two games really give us a chance to make a statement around our league.”

That statement was made during a difficult stretch for the Spartans that included games against No. 1 Kansas, Louisville and Florida along with UCLA and Texas in the Las Vegas Invitational. The only losses were in the season-opener against Kansas in the Champions Classic followed by an overtime loss at Louisville in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge.

Mixed in that run was a stretch of six games in 16 days with just one at home. It was a tough road but one that helped Tom Izzo learn plenty about his team heading back into Big Ten action.

More: MSU's Winston, UM's Brazdeikis earn Big Ten honors

“I think that we had a hell of a run if you look at who we played, where we played, and when we played them. I thought we did a good job,” Izzo said. “I still get frustrated over that Louisville loss and I was so frustrated that I watched it (again) with my staff to figure out where were we back then and where are we now. If you remember, (Matt) McQuaid didn't play in that game and Cassius (Winston) got into foul trouble and we had some things that went wrong, so I think we are better prepared now.”

Northwestern (9-4, 0-2) provides an interesting test. The record says the Wildcats are off to a tough start, but the Big Ten losses were each by two points — on the road against Indiana and at home against No. 2 Michigan.

“We’re in a small hole,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. “There’s 20 games now and we lost our first two games. We would have liked to have split especially if you look at the difficulty of playing at Indiana and then playing Michigan, who may be the best team in the country and you lose both at the buzzer, or on a last shot.”

The Wildcats have experience, led by guard Vic Law, who is averaging 18.9 points, 6.5 rebounds and nearly three assists a game. Forward Dererk Pardon had a double-double with 12 points and 10 rebounds in the win over Columbia while guard Ryan Taylor had 21 points in 38 minutes.

It’s enough to have the Wildcats feeling optimistic.

“We’re two games down but we got a lot of basketball left to be played,” Collins said. “We can’t panic. We got a great opportunity ahead of us in East Lansing, against one of the premier programs and teams in the country and we know what we’ll have in front of us.”

The Spartans understand there are no easy nights the rest of the way, including against Northwestern.

“Now we’re in the Big Ten season and it’s a grind every time, every team,” Winston said. “You’re liable to lose a game any night so you’ve got to come here ready to play. It’s gonna be a lot of fun.”

Winners of six straight, Michigan State is expecting the Big Ten to be a battle. After capping this week off on the road against the Buckeyes, the Spartans get Purdue at home before playing four of the final five games in the month of January on the road.

If they get through that stretch in good shape, they should be in position to make a run at the top of the standings.

“We have got a long way to go to compete in this league,” Izzo said. “I think there are going to be a lot of close games. I think the league is still really, really, really good. I really do. I think some of the worst teams are the hardest places to play and there are not any real bad, bad teams. I don't know the last time we had five, six, seven teams ranked in the top 25. I think all of them are deserving.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau

Northwestern at No. 8 Michigan State

Tip-off: 8:30 p.m. Wednesday, Breslin Center, East Lansing

TV/radio: BTN/WJR 760

Records: Northwestern 9-4, 0-2; Michigan State 11-2, 2-0

Outlook: Michigan State has won nine straight in the series with its last loss at home coming in 2009. … Northwestern enters the game second in the Big Ten in 3-point field-goal percentage, allowing opponents to make just 28.3 percent. … Northwestern senior Vic Law is fourth in the Big Ten in scoring at 18.9 points a game.

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