Before the college basketball season began many prognosticators envisioned the Big Ten as the best conference in the country.
Season preview editions of various magazines plastered Cody Zeller across their covers, SportsCenter anchors were lauding the impressive freshmen the Wolverines brought in and commentators everywhere had visions of Aaron Craft playing defense dancing through their heads.
One team that many were overlooking was the Michigan State Spartans. It didn’t matter that Tom Izzo, arguably the best coach this side of Mike Krzyzewski, would still be prowling the sidelines or that key players were returning. The only thing people focused on was the fact that Draymond Green is now in the NBA.
Of course, it didn’t help matters much when the Spartans came out and lost their first game of the year against a Connecticut squad playing its first game without Jim Calhoun.
Now the Big Ten has shiny new and unexpected toys in the form of Illinois and Minnesota to join the Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan parade, so once again Michigan State is being overlooked on the dawn of conference play.
Let other Big Ten fanbases be forewarned though. The Spartans are more battle tested than the majority of the league and have a championship pedigree behind their coach and returning difference makers Keith Appling, Branden Dawson, Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne.
Michigan State hasn’t played a schedule that can live up to Duke’s, but it has been plenty tough enough to prepare the Green and White for the grueling conference schedule on the horizon. Kansas, Connecticut, Miami and Texas are all sprinkled across the early calendar.
Take a quick glance at the out-of-conference slates from some of the other Big Ten contenders. Michigan has played a few teams of note (North Carolina State, Pittsburgh and Kansas State), but the NC State game was at home and the other two were on a neutral floor.
Ohio State has lost to the only two good teams it has played (Duke and Kansas), Minnesota lost to the only team it faced that is currently ranked (Duke) and Indiana’s victory over North Carolina doesn’t look nearly as good now as it did at the time.
Illinois’ win at Gonzaga is one of the most impressive victories for any team on the young season, so let’s grant the Illini that.
There are certainly some quality opponents mixed in on those schedules, but Michigan State has one thing going for it that those other squads do not—extensive travel under its belt already.
The Spartans started the season against Connecticut on an air base in Germany and then played a mere four days later in the Georgia Dome in Atlanta versus Kansas. There is no road trip in conference play that will come anywhere near that in terms of miles and overall travel stress.
What’s more, each game was an emotionally draining contest that came down to the final few seconds. Think Izzo’s team is going to be fazed by back-to-back trips to Madison and Bloomington after that?
Those were not the only nail-biting battles that Michigan State has played this year either. Victories over Boise State, Bowling Green, Loyola, Louisiana-Lafayette and Texas all saw the Spartans trailing early before eventually pulling them out down the stretch.
Even if many of those games were against lesser competition, grueling battles that go to the wire will serve Michigan State better in the future than Ohio State beating Savannah by 40 points will for the Buckeyes.
Now that conference play is upon us one of the nation’s best rebounding teams is ready to demonstrate its toughness that early trips to Germany and Atlanta and closely contested games have honed.
I’m not suggesting the Spartans are going to win the conference this season, but don’t overlook any team that is coached by Izzo and is already battle tested. You’ve officially been warned Hoosiers, Wolverines, Buckeyes, Illini and Gophers.