Previewing Key Non-Conference Matchups for Men’s Basketball

Before Big Ten conference play begins on December 30 with a matchup against Maryland, MSU faces a brutal non-conference schedule that will test head coach Tom Izzo’s young team right away. Sure, there are some cupcakes along the way with home games against Loyola (Chicago), Arkansas-Pine Bluff and The Citadel, but there are some grisly showdowns on the horizon.

Here is a preview of the biggest games of the non-conference schedule.

Tuesday, Nov. 18 – No. 4 Duke Blue Devils (Champions Classic, Indianapolis)

In just the second game of the new season, the Spartans travel to Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis for a showdown with Coach K and the No. 4 ranked Duke Blue Devils. Led by a star-studded recruiting class featuring five-star recruits Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones, Duke will give the youthful Spartans all they can handle inside and out.

Okafor, who was named to the preseason All-America team, will be an absolute monster to try to defend down low. He has two inches and 25 pounds on MSU’s biggest player, Matt Costello.

The Blue Devils have always had the Spartans’ number in past matchups. Since 1979, MSU is just 1-8 against Duke, which is their worst winning percentage against any team (minimum two games, according to sports reference). They also have been outscored by an average of 6.9 points in those games, which is second-worst for MSU against any team.

This game will certainly be a shootout, but the Spartans are definitely facing an uphill battle.

Prediction: 82-70 Duke.

Sunday, Nov. 30 – No. 5 Kansas Jayhawks (Orlando Classic)

This matchup is not a guarantee, as it would be the championship game of the Orlando Classic, but these two teams are the most likely to survive and advance.

Bill Self may have lost two lottery pick players in Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, but the Jayhawks reloaded quite nicely. Kansas signed the No. 1 power forward in the class of 2014 (ESPN) in Cliff Alexander and the No. 4 small forward Kelly Oubre, Jr. Kansas also returns 6-foot-8 forward Perry Ellis, who was second on the team in both points and rebounds per game last year.

The Kansas-Michigan State matchup has been extremely tight over the years, with the Spartans holding the series lead 4-3 (sports reference). Only two points separate the teams in their combined seven games. The defensively challenged Spartans will have their hands full with all the offensive weapons of the Jayhawks.

Coach Izzo might be forced to sit transfer guard Bryn Forbes at times because of his defensive struggles, which would mean the Spartans lose one of their best shooters.

The key to MSU’s success could hinge on how their freshmen respond to the pressure of such a big game early in the season.

Prediction: 71-65 Kansas.

Wednesday, Dec. 3 – at Notre Dame (Big Ten/ACC Challenge)

Just three days after a challenging tournament in Orlando, the Spartans once again hit the road, this time traveling to South Bend, Indiana. The Irish may not be ranked, but on the road anything can go wrong, and MSU might be suffering from a Jayhawk hangover.

Notre Dame’s leading scorer from a year ago, Jerian Grant, was suspended for academic reasons after playing just 12 games. He averaged 19 points and 6.2 assists per game in those 12 appearances and looks to make up for lost time in his last season. Before his suspension, the Irish went 8-4, but after they lost Grant they only won seven of their remaining 20 games.

This is a very winnable matchup for the Spartans. The young players will already be battle tested and MSU will be looking for a marquee win to keep them in the top 25. This game is the perfect opportunity to right the ship and get back on track as they head into an easy stretch of games before conference play.

Prediction: 68-60 Michigan State.