East Lansing — Michigan State was still basking in the glow of a second-straight victory over a top-10 team on Thursday night when reality set in — the Spartans have to get ready for Big Ten play.
And not at the end of the month.
That’s because Nebraska comes to the Breslin Center for a 4:30 p.m. tip on Sunday followed by a trip to Rutgers on Tuesday for an abnormally early start to the conference schedule.
“The Big Ten is coming faster than usual,” junior guard Matt McQuaid said. “We have Nebraska this Sunday so we have to turn around and get ready for that game.”
The odd wrinkle to the schedule comes, of course, because the Big Ten will play its conference tournament a week early this season. They did that in order to have it at Madison Square Garden in New York, a venue that has long hosted the Big East tournament. They’ll have that event again, which meant if the Big Ten wanted to play there, they’d have to adjust.
So, Nebraska is here on Sunday and it’s not something Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is exactly on board with.
“My thoughts? Why? That's my thoughts. Why are we doing this?” Izzo said after No. 3 Michigan State dispatched No. 5 Notre Dame on Thursday. “I understand why. It's kind of a one-year thing. It wouldn't be bad if we had done this two years out so that we could have made the rest of our schedule. That's the only thing that I'm a little upset about. I understand why they do it and they have to do what they have to do.”
Whether the Big Ten had to do it is up for debate, but it’s been commissioner Jim Delany’s plan since Rutgers and Maryland joined the Big Ten in 2014. Last season’s conference tournament was in Washington as it moved away from its usual rotation of Chicago and Indianapolis. It heads back to those two cities after this year, but there’s the promise of more tournaments out east in the future, which could lead to continued schedule changes.
Throw in the fact the Big Ten will start playing 20 conference games next season and the prospect of early Big Ten games continuing seems likely.
The immediate result are games this weekend and the Spartans (6-1) get set to take on a Nebraska team lacking high expectations but with a history of winning at the Breslin Center. Coach Tim Miles has led the Cornhuskers to two wins in their last three trips to East Lansing and Nebraska (6-2) had one of the Big Ten’s three wins in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, beating Boston College.
“Every Big Ten game is a big game because they know who we are,” sophomore guard Cassius Winston said. “With the rivalries we have, the scouting report they have on you. There’s not gonna be an easy game in the Big Ten for us. We’re gonna have to fight through every game.”
Michigan State enters the game playing some of the best defense in the country and is allowing opponents to shoot just 35.1 percent from the field.
The Spartans are also getting closer to being completely healthy as Kenny Goins returned to the lineup after missing four games with a knee injury while Miles Bridges (ankle) is nearly 100 percent. But getting past the two conference games could present a break after Michigan State will have played six games in 13 days.
“I'm trying to survive until Tuesday,” Izzo said. “Then we get a little break. Hopefully a little practice time. A little time off. A little time to heal. … That's going to be as big of a concern for our team and our health and our well-being, just as much as the team's we're playing.”
It just so happens, the next two will count in the conference standings.
“I think we're excited for the Big Ten, it's kind of earlier than last year,” sophomore guard Joshua Langford said. “We're excited and we look forward to the challenge because we know the Big Ten is really, really tough, and a lot of great teams in the Big Ten and we're just looking forward to it.”
Nebraska at No. 3 Michigan State
Tip-off: 4:30 p.m. Sunday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
TV/radio: FS1/WJR 760
Records: Nebraska 6-2, Michigan State 6-1
Outlook: Nebraska has won three straight games and has won two of its last three games at the Breslin Center. The Cornhuskers beat the Spartans, 60-51, in 2014 and followed that with a 72-71 victory in 2016. … Michigan State’s win over Notre Dame was No. 550 for coach Tom Izzo, who improved to 63-0 all-time at home in November.