If you think Michigan State looks like it’s a bit overwhelmed to start the season, you’re not the only one.
"I actually apologized to my team," Tom Izzo said after the Spartans’ loss to Baylor at the Battle 4 Atlantis. "And yet, I've always played a tough schedule. ... You know what? You can take it as an excuse, you can take it as the truth, I don't give a damn. I'm telling you what I did. This ain't on them. It's on me."
Michigan State’s early schedule has been ridiculously difficult, and it won’t get any easier on Tuesday night as the Spartans travel to Cameron Indoor Stadium to take on Duke. A look at the several roadblocks they’ve faced:
|Result, opponent||AP ranking||KenPom ranking|
|L 65-63, Arizona||16||24|
|L 69-48, Kentucky||1||4|
|W 100-53, Mississippi Valley State||n/a||346|
|W 78-77, Florida Gulf Coast||n/a||85|
|W 73-62, St. John's||n/a||99|
|L 73-58, Baylor||9||10|
|W 77-72, Wichita State||n/a||23|
It’s not just the opponents. The excessive travel has an impact, as well. Michigan State started the season in Hawaii; flew to New York for the Champions Classic; made a pit stop back home in East Lansing and went to the Bahamas for Thanksgiving. The Spartans are racking up frequent flyer miles along with quality opponents.
It bears wondering: is this kind of scheduling unprecedented for a power conference program? Or are the Spartans just the latest team to challenge themselves early on?
Let’s take a look back at some similar cases in recent years. Note: for the sake of consistency, all rankings referenced from here on out are KenPom rankings, and this list only examines teams that played during or after the 2001-02 season. Also, these squads are exclusively from Power Five conferences – mid and low-majors frequently play grueling schedules, but it’s far less common for powerhouses to do so.
Let’s get to it.
In 2014-15, Kansas played the most difficult non-league schedule of any power conference team. As it compares to this year’s Michigan State squad, which has taken on five top-25 KenPom schools in November alone, the Spartans’ schedule is more difficult.
The Jayhawks were blown out by then-No. 1 Kentucky in their second game of the season by 32 points, but in early December, they won against four quality opponents in a row: Michigan State (15); Florida (34); Georgetown (22) and Utah (8). One could reasonably argue that 2014-15 Kansas’ entire non-conference schedule is on par with the Spartans’ this year, but four of its toughest games came after Dec. 1.
2012-13 Duke didn’t travel across the country nearly as extensively as this year’s Michigan State team has, and the Spartans have played three top-10 teams in comparison to Duke’s two. Still, the Blue Devils played a heck of a schedule that season, and unlike Michigan State, they won each time they took the floor against a quality opponent.
We may have our winner. Check out these three games the Blue Devils played before the month of December:
|W 74-69, Michigan State||3|
|W 68-61, Kansas||4|
|L 85-63, Ohio State||2|
Duke also opened the season with a win over No. 25 Belmont and defeated No. 22 Michigan on Nov. 22. The Seth Curry-Austin Rivers backcourt was certainly tested; it’s interesting to look back and see how aggressively Mike Krzyzewski scheduled a few years ago in comparison to now.
In Tubby Smith’s final year in Lexington, he put his team through quite a non-conference slate. Check out some of these matchups:
|L 73-86, UCLA||6|
|L 80-63, Memphis||9|
|L 75-63, North Carolina||1|
|W 59-54, Indiana||14|
|W 61-49, Louisville||20|
Five top-20 teams; four top-15 teams; three top-10 teams -- and the Wildcats, while talented, weren’t nearly as stacked as they currently are under John Calipari. It showed: UK lost to North Carolina, UCLA and Memphis – all of those losses were by double figures.
In 2001, Lute Olson lined up this group of programs to take on his Wildcats:
|W 71-67, Maryland||3|
|W 75-71, Florida||7|
|W 88-74, Texas||28|
|L 105-97, Kansas||4|
|W 87-82, Illinois||8|
These were Arizona's first five games of the year. You couldn’t have just scheduled one cupcake in there, Lute? Arizona was a good team in 2001-02, and it came out of that stretch 4-1; ironically, the Wildcats’ only loss came at home against Kansas.
Looking at the past 16 years of data, only 2011-12 Duke rivals Michigan State’s pre-December schedule difficulty. If we expand that sample size and look at non-league scheduling as a whole, 2001-02 Arizona might take the cake.
Again, though, none of these teams traveled like Michigan State has in 2016. Many of these schools were veteran-laden groups; more than half of the Spartans’ rotation is made up of freshmen, and two of their impact upperclassmen are sidelined with injuries.
Luckily for Izzo and company, after the Duke matchup, the Spartans return to East Lansing for a five-game home stand before Big Ten play begins. It’s just what the doctor ordered for this battle-tested young group.