College football season is just a week away. But even though the Big Ten is gearing up for an exciting year on the gridiron, the conference released its schedule for an intriguing 2018-19 men’s basketball season Tuesday afternoon. Michigan State followed soon after with a finalized schedule.
Coming off its first outright Big Ten title since the 2008-09 season, Michigan State heads into the season as a favorite to win the conference again. With returning junior stars like Cassius Winston, Nick Ward and Josh Langford leading the way, not to mention a loaded five-man class of incoming freshmen, the Spartans–ranked in the top 15 in most way-too-early preseason polls–appear poised to repeat as conference champs.
However, as with any Tom Izzo-coached team, this version of the Spartans will have to surmount a daunting slate of games, especially in the nonconference. The Big Ten portion will be no passover either, as the conference expanded its schedule to 20 games for each team. Here are some of the most significant areas to watch in the Spartans’ upcoming season.
The Champions Classic has been one of the premier events in college basketball ever since its inception in 2011. This year, it’s being moved up one week to officially kick off the season from Indianapolis on Tuesday, Nov. 6. And the Spartans will get a doozy of a matchup in Kansas, a team that has received No. 1 preseason honors in many publications, along with Duke and Kentucky, who will play in the other Classic game.
The Spartans have done well against the Jayhawks in their previous Champions Classic matchups, winning in 2012 and 2015. But this may be one of Bill Self’s best teams yet, thanks to the eligibility of transfers Dedric Lawson, K.J. Lawson and Charlie Moore. Udoka Azubuike returns down low, and a top-five recruiting class is headed to Lawrence as well. The Spartans would gain plenty of national attention if they can top the Jayhawks to start the season.
Typical Izzo nonconference sked
If that showdown with Kansas doesn’t end up in the Spartans’ favor, there will still be plenty of opportunities for signature early-season wins, as has been the usual in Tom Izzo’s 24 seasons as the Spartan head coach.
The Spartans will travel to Sin City for the Las Vegas Invitational, where they are set to play UCLA on Nov. 22. If they win that contest, they will take on the winner of North Carolina-Texas on the 23rd.
The Spartans will remain on the road for the week following Thanksgiving, traveling to Louisville on Nov. 27 for the Big Ten/ACC Challenge before opening the Big Ten season with a Nov. 30 trip to Rutgers. Following a home conference game against Iowa, the Spartans will continue their nonconference schedule with a Dec. 6 trip to Gainesville to take on Florida. That game serves as the back half of a home-and-home that saw the Gators travel to the Breslin Center in 2015.
In all, the Spartans will take on eight NCAA tournament teams from a year ago: Kansas, UCLA, North Carolina, Texas, Florida, Purdue, Ohio State and national runner-up Michigan.
Matchups with conference contenders
After a down year that saw only four conference teams make the NCAA tournament, the Big Ten should be significantly stronger in the 2018-19 season. Michigan State will have to win its big games against the expected contenders, which include Wisconsin, Purdue, Maryland and Michigan. More on the Wolverines later.
The Spartans only play Wisconsin and Maryland once, while they must take on last season’s second-place Boilermakers twice. The Breslin Center will host the only matchup with the Terrapins on Jan. 21. The Badgers will host the lone matchup at the Kohl Center on Feb. 12. Purdue will travel to the Breslin Center on Jan. 8, while the Spartans will travel to Mackey Arena on Jan. 27.
Michigan State’s other conference home-and-homes include Ohio State, Rutgers, Nebraska, Indiana and Iowa. The Spartans will only have to play host to Northwestern and Minnesota, while having to travel to play Penn State and Illinois.
Battles for the Great Lakes State
With the new 20-game conference schedule, the Big Ten is protecting the heated Michigan-Michigan State rivalry, allowing for a home-and-home each year. The rivalry was only played once in the 2015-16 season (at Michigan) and 2017-18 (at Michigan State. This season appears to have been the one to implement that change, because the conference championship may very well come down to the Spartans and Wolverines.
Michigan State will not play Michigan until the 28th game of the season, a road trip to Ann Arbor on Sunday, Feb. 24. Then, following a road trip to Indiana and a home game against Nebraska, the Spartans will close the season playing host to the Wolverines on Senior Day: Saturday, March 9.
Coming off a run to the national title game, John Beilein’s team has the talent to overtake the Spartans for the Big Ten crown. Led by point guard Zavier Simpson, the Wolverines also bring in a five-man recruiting class to be reckoned with. The Big Ten title may just come down to those two matchups, so it is not outlandish to think those are must-wins for both the Spartans and Wolverines.
Tipoff times have not been announced yet for any of the games. Follow Impact Sports for in-depth coverage of all MSU athletics, including the upcoming basketball season.