A No. 14 national ranking doesn’t feel like a snub very often, but Michigan State will have a chip on its shoulder in 2012-13 as it looks to prove it belongs with the Big Ten’s trio of preseason Top Five teams. For the Spartans to make a run at defending their share of last year’s conference crown, they’ll need to be ready for a schedule that (surprise, surprise) is among the toughest in the nation.
One of several intriguing nonconference matchups State will face is a visit to East Lansing by the Texas Longhorns. The point guard matchup between Keith Appling and Myck Kabongo will be a highlight reel unto itself, but the clash in the low post is likely to decide which team comes out on top.
Read on for more on the Spartans-Longhorns contest and the rest of the most critical games Tom Izzo’s squad will play this season.
The only thing that stopped the Spartans from being blown out of the gym by North Carolina in last year’s season opener was that the game wasn’t played in a gym.
After opening 2011-12 on an aircraft carrier, the Spartans opt for an Army base in Germany (and a much more favorable matchup) this time around.
Kevin Ollie’s debut as UConn’s head coach sees him at the helm of a team that lost most of its talent to transfer and the NBA draft.
Shabazz Napier (12.7 points and 5.8 assists per game) is a wonderful point guard, but he just doesn’t have enough help to keep the bigger, deeper Spartans from opening the year with a victory.
One of the season's biggest tests for the Spartan frontcourt will come in the Big Ten opener.
Minnesota forwards Rodney Williams Jr. and Trevor Mbakwe are as athletic a pairing as State will face, and even hulking Derrick Nix will have to work to keep former Big Ten rebounding champ Mbakwe from dominating the glass.
The key to surviving this road test will be guard play, because Minnesota’s perimeter game (led by nondescript senior Julian Welch) is not a strong one.
Keith Appling and Gary Harris should be able to pile up points here, earning a much-needed 1-0 start to the conference season.
Both Texas and Michigan State bring back point guards coming off breakout seasons. The Spartans’ Keith Appling will have all he can handle matching up with Longhorn sophomore Myck Kabongo (9.6 points and 5.2 assists per game).
Even more critical to State’s chances of securing the win, though, will be shutting down the scoring punch of the Texas frontcourt.
Rick Barnes’ recruiting class features a trio of 6’10” forwards—led by sure-handed Cameron Ridley—who will make the veteran Spartans pay for any lapses in focus on defense.
The toughest true road game Michigan State will face outside the conference comes in a post-Thanksgiving trip to Miami.
The Hurricanes may be coming off a disappointing 20-13 season, but they have more than enough talent to be a threat on their home floor.
Kenny Kadji and Reggie Johnson make up a bruising frontcourt that combined for 21.7 points and 12.5 rebounds a night, and they’re supported outside by versatile senior Durand Scott (who chipped in another 12.9 points per game to lead the team).
Michigan State has the size to bang with Miami up front and enough of an advantage on defense to grind out a win here, but it’s not likely to be an easy one.
After a brutal pair of road dates with Ohio State and Michigan, the Spartans face a dangerous potential letdown game on their home floor.
A stumble in the penultimate game of the regular season could cost State a shot at the conference crown, and against Wisconsin, it will only take a few mistakes to turn the tide of the game.
The Badgers featured the country’s toughest scoring defense last season, and their three returning starters will make sure they’re at or near the top of that list again.
The Spartans, however, have a first-rate defense of their own and an appreciably stronger collection of scorers, making them a good bet to win a close game on their home floor.
Beating a loaded Wolverines’ offense in Ann Arbor would be one of the year’s biggest accomplishments for Michigan State, and it’s hard to imagine a better way for the Spartans to build momentum for the postseason.
Of course, earning that win against a squad that’s added standout frosh Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III to its already formidable roster is going to be a daunting proposition.
Shutting down this collection of scorers in their own building is likely beyond even the Spartans’ defensive abilities, so the key will be State’s performance on offense.
If Keith Appling and Gary Harris can light up Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr.—a good but not insuperable pair of defenders—they’ll give Michigan State a chance to pull out its biggest road win of the season.
In addition to providing an early front-runner in the Big Ten race, the Buckeyes’ trip to East Lansing should be a defensive clash to remember.
Ohio State was already an intimidating squad on defense last year, and the likely addition of shot-blocker Amir Williams to the starting lineup will only make them tougher to score on.
The crucial battle for the Spartans’ hopes will be up top, where Keith Appling must minimize his turnovers against ball-hawking Aaron Craft.
If Appling can get any kind of offense going (likely with appreciable help from Gary Harris and Branden Dawson), Michigan State will be in a good position to come out on top here.
Gargantuan venues like the Georgia Dome—home of this Champions’ Classic matchup of Top 15 foes—are typically unfriendly for jump shooters.
Nothing, however, will be less friendly to the scorers in this contest than a pair of defenses that finished second (MSU) and third (KU) in the country in field-goal percentage allowed.
Jayhawks seven-footer Jeff Withey will keep the Spartans out of the paint, but he doesn’t have enough offensive game to take over against State’s physical frontcourt.
The Spartans have the best scorer on the floor (freshman SG Gary Harris), and that edge should be enough to give them a signature nonconference win.
If the Spartans want to establish themselves as a serious Final Four contender, they’ll never get a better chance. Indiana is the No. 1 team in the preseason rankings for a reason, but on the road in East Lansing they’re far from unbeatable.
The combination of 6’9”, 270-pound Derrick Nix and 6’10”, 240-pound Adreian Payne will make even 7’0” Cody Zeller work for his points, and the rest of the Spartans’ physical defense will be able to keep the pressure on Indiana’s wealth of jump shooters.
The crucial question for Michigan State will be whether Keith Appling and Gary Harris can generate enough offense—without taking bad shots and exposing the defense to fast-break chances—to outpace the Hoosiers.
The intensity of the Spartans-Wolverines rivalry always makes this game one of the year’s biggest, and with both teams harboring Final Four hopes, it has even more at stake than usual.
Even if they come up short in Ann Arbor later in the season, the Spartans cannot afford to surrender home-court advantage with a loss here.
With the home crowd on its side, State’s defense should have the distinct advantage over the jump shot-heavy U-M attack.
In a defensive contest, look for the Spartans to pound the ball inside early and often—if they can get Michigan into foul trouble, State’s superior depth will become a huge factor.