Undefeated No. 4 Michigan State ready to plunge into Big Ten waters vs. Northwestern

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
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Ready or not, Big Ten play is here.

In most college basketball seasons, a team would have nearly a dozen games to get things figured out before beginning its conference season. Of course, things are hardly typical these days as college basketball attempts to play in the middle of a global pandemic.

The COVID-19 outbreak forced Michigan State to lose one of its seven nonconference games when an increase in cases at Virginia scrubbed the teams’ scheduled matchup in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. And now, after a longer-than-usual break, the Spartans are set to get back to action on Sunday when they travel to Northwestern for a 7 p.m. tip-off.

“The Big Ten you know throughout going into the year, from top to bottom is going to be a dogfight each and every night,” guard Foster Loyer says.

And even as No. 4 Michigan State begins its quest for a fourth straight Big Ten championship, it knows better than to take any team lightly, especially this year.

“The Big Ten you know throughout going into the year, from top to bottom is going to be a dogfight each and every night,” guard Foster Loyer said. “Especially on the road. It’s very hard to win on the road in the Big Ten and I think this year presents a unique challenge that none of us really have experienced with the fan situation.

“But I think it's important to realize that the first game is a little bit different and just to know that regardless of where someone's at in the Big Ten standings it's going to be a fight and you better come prepared to play each and every night.”

There’s not much to the Big Ten standings at this point as teams have just started to play each other this week. However, the Wildcats aren’t picked to finish terribly high after finishing 3-17 in conference games last season.

Like Loyer said, though, teams can’t be taken lightly in this conference and Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said he saw plenty of signs of progress from the Wildcats last season. It’s understandable considering Northwestern pushed Michigan State to the limit in Evanston last season, getting 26 points from guard Boo Buie in a 77-72 Spartans victory.

“It’s a talented young group,” Izzo said. “They had a pretty good team last year with those freshmen and they were getting better as the year went on. … It’s a very well-coached team and they're better than they were last year, in my opinion. And it’ll be our first conference game, so we're looking forward to it.”

The Wildcats (3-1) have lost games to COVID this season as well and while it’s a small sample size, they do have six players averaging 10 points or more.

Of course, against teams like Chicago State and Quincy, it’s hard to put a ton of stock into those numbers. Still, it’s the first conference game in a tough opening stretch for Michigan State that included a Christmas Day matchup with No. 12 Wisconsin followed by back-to-back road games with Minnesota and Nebraska.

Playing on the road might not be as daunting as it has been in the past and the Spartans admit they might actually miss the atmosphere a bit.

“There’s nothing like playing with the experience of going to different arenas,” junior Aaron Henry said, “and playing in gyms like Assembly Hall or Mackey (Arena).”

But getting wins is still tough in the Big Ten, and Michigan State knows every one counts when trying to repeat as champions in arguably the toughest conference in the nation.

“I like to defend it just as much as I like to defend Indiana basketball,” said Henry, an Indianapolis native. “It’s tough, there are no days off. I mean, every game is a war. You can't lose many games and try to have a shot at winning the Big Ten. Every day has to be won, every practice has to be won, the games have to be won, the bus rides have to be won, and just the preparation has to be won as a whole.

“Anybody that plays a Big Ten team will feel that. … Within our conference, we understand how much it means to us, for sure.”

With just one game in a two-week stretch — a victory at home over Oakland — Michigan State has spent most of its time working on its own issues, from turnovers to ball-screen defense. It was tougher this week with final exams and though the Spartans tried at add another game, they ultimately were unable to do so.

So, after six wins against varying levels of competition, Michigan State begins another long Big Ten run.

“I'm trying to be excited about where I think we are and where I think we can go,” Izzo said. “And I’m keeping that kind of down because I'm not sure what some of the teams have been like that we played. So, I think we've made big progress and I think we're playing better.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau

No. 4 Michigan State at Northwestern

Tip-off: 7 p.m. Sunday, Welsh-Ryan Arena, Evanston, Ill.

TV/radio: BTN/760

Records: Michigan State 6-0, Northwestern 3-1 Outlook: Michigan State has won 12 straight in the series, its last loss coming in Evanston in 2012. … Northwestern is second in scoring in the Big Ten, averaging 93.3 points a game and leads the conference in defense, allowing 58.5 points a game.

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