Michigan State Basketball: Spartans' 5 Biggest Games in 2013-14 Season
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo may argue that every game is the most important game. That's to be expected, that's what coaches do.
They don't want to look ahead, nor do they want their players getting too relaxed when it comes time to take the court. Records, rankings and prestige mean nothing in the grand scheme of things.
Well, that's probably something that Izzo would like for us to believe.
In 2012, CBSSports ranked Michigan State's schedule as the No. 2 toughest behind Duke, which beat Michigan State in the Sweet 16. This year, the Spartans face Kentucky, Virginia Tech, North Carolina and Texas before engaging in Big Ten play on New Year's Eve versus Penn State.
2013-14 schedule via MSUSpartans.com
Needless to say, squaring off with John Calipari's Wildcats should provide enough early answers for Izzo. The Hokies and Tar Heels hail from a strong ACC, and Texas has traditionally been a great match up for Izzo.
This slideshow will examine the five biggest games of the regular season.
Late February/Early March
For obvious reasons, this stretch of the season will be of the utmost importance.
Imagine the Spartans in the thick of it, racing toward the top of the Big Ten. And in order to remain or get to the top, Izzo has to face Purdue on the road (Feb. 20) and Michigan (Feb. 23) before making his way to Ohio State on March 9 for the season finale.
Purdue has fallen off a bit, but it's still a solid team with great coaching courtesy of Matt Painter. That'll be a major battle for the Spartans, but also for junior Branden Dawson, who hails from Boilermakers country and was once recruited by them.
Spartans vs. Boilers is always a classic Big Ten battle, regardless of the score. The level of competitive dislike between these two teams is noteworthy. Fans get personal. Players get personal. It's Big Ten basketball at its finest.
Nov. 12 vs. Kentucky (Champions Classic, Chicago)
To be the best, you have to beat the best.
Kentucky is a title contender, so downing it in Chicago would be the best-case scenario for Izzo. Either that, or playing the Wildcats closely for four quarters would also be acceptable, win or lose.
Coach John Calipari has a typical assortment of 5-star, NBA-ready talents ready to pounce. With twins Andrew and Aaron Harrison, along with James Young and Alex Poythress, Calipari has a young squad with a lot of talent.
That's putting it lightly, of course.
Calipari said the following about this year's team (via SB Nation):
Our biggest opponent? Ourselves. At Kentucky, we are competing against ourselves every day. We can't let the strain and spotlight of this program affect you. We are the place to help you achieve your dreams. We don't just play college basketball, we are college basketball.
If the Spartans want to avoid being blown off the court, they'll have to run. And run some more. Losing wouldn't make or break the season, but a victory would definitely get the ball rolling. Establishing early confidence is key for any team.
If Michigan State finds itself early, the rest of the year could be quite long...for the other guys, that is.
Jan. 4 at Indiana
Heading to Bloomington to bring in the new year is a daunting task.
Hoosiers coach Tom Crean, a former assistant to Izzo, is without star guard Victor Oladipo and center Cody Zeller, but he has Yogi Ferrell and Noah Vonleh, a stud frosh, to pick up the slack.
Izzo was swept by the Hoosiers last year, losing 75-70 at Bloomington and 72-68 at the Breslin Center. Once again conference contenders, the Hoosiers should prove to be a worthy adversary...twice this season, at the very least.
Indiana finished the 2012-13 regular season ranked No. 4 in the AP poll. Michigan State was No. 9.
This game is also important for Keith Appling, who scored a combined nine points in both losses. As a senior, Appling will likely look to shake off the cobwebs and prove that he can score against a B1G elite.
Dec. 4 vs. North Carolina
Izzo has to find a way to beat UNC.
OK, so 2009 was what, four years ago?
Still stinging over that title loss to the Tar Heels, the "Team of Destiny"?
It's fine. You're not the only one.
When Izzo and North Carolina clash, there always seems to be a subtle "payback" undertone to his approach. He's lost the big one to North Carolina and he's lost on an air craft carrier docked in the waters just outside of San Diego.
He lost in the 2005 Final Four and 1998 Elite 8.
But will he lose in his own gym? That's the question.
Be sure to clear plans for what should be the best matchup of the Big Ten-ACC challenge.
Jan. 21/25 vs. Michigan/Indiana
As mentioned in a previous slide, the stretch of late February/early March is important.
But so is the early "stretch". That's when teams jockey for position, the same position that they'll hopefully fight for later in the year.
Jan. 21 vs. Indiana will show Izzo enough, likewise with Jan. 25 vs. Michigan. Both teams are capable of winning the regular-season championship, conference tournament championship and maybe even a national title.
The history of Spartans vs. Wolverines and Spartans vs. Hoosiers doesn't need much explanation. Juggernauts on paper, the Spartans will have the opportunity during the final week of January to show just how legitimate they really are this season.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81