EAST LANSING - The grind of the Big Ten season begins Wednesday for Michigan State basketball.
Not that the Spartans aren't already eyeball deep in it, with their annual nonconference gauntlet slowly coming to an end.
The first NET rankings of the season came out Monday, and MSU has the toughest schedule of any high-major program in Division I - more impressive during a time of year that usually is dominated by low- to mid-major schools playing guarantee games against the big boys.
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"We said our strength the schedule is always good," Izzo said Monday, "but it doesn't seem to get the credit. … We're ninth overall but we're No. 1 among major colleges, which I think is significant."
That should only improve as the 20th-ranked Spartans get deeper into conference play after they open Wednesday in Minneapolis against Minnesota. Tipoff is 9 p.m. at Williams Arena (BTN).
"You gotta stay locked in," senior Gabe Brown said Saturday after MSU's 81-68 win over Toledo. "There's gonna be a lot of ups and downs in Big Ten season. I've been through it for four years, so I know about I know about the ups, I know about the downs. I know about big leads and coming back and things like that. So all I want to do is to show my team and show everybody else that Michigan State basketball is back."
The Spartans are No. 19 in the overall NET rankings, which is the primary evaluation tool used by the NCAA tournament selection committee. They are fourth among Big Ten schools, behind No. 1 Purdue, No. 9 Iowa and No. 18 Wisconsin.
"The NET doesn't determine what the name is on the front of the jersey," Dan Gavitt, senior vice president of basketball, said on the NCAA website Monday. "It just determines how well you've done with the number of games you've played."
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Minnesota (7-0) is sixth in the Big Ten and 36th overall in NET. That is somewhat due to the Gophers' schedule strength which ranks 241st out of 358 Division I schools.
MSU's last opponent, Toledo, is No. 74 in NET. The Spartans (7-2) beat Connecticut, which is No. 13 in NET, and Loyola Chicago (25th) in the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament. Its two losses this season came against Baylor (sixth) and Kansas (14th).
Izzo for the entirety of his 27-season, Hall of Fame career has ascribed to the theory of playing anyone anywhere and at any time. That typically means taking some lumps as lessons early in the year when facing the bluebloods and top-15 teams during nonconference play in November and December.
This year, despite working in four new players in transfer point guard Tyson Walker and freshmen Max Christie, Jaden Akins and Pierre Brooks II, the Spartans are slowly beginning to come together while also winning some of those big games against the big names.
"I think it's helpful for the team, not helpful for the younger guys. … So the tougher schedule is harder on freshmen, but I still think it benefits us and it benefits them in the long run," Izzo said. "The long run now for people is tomorrow. I don't know if it benefits us for tomorrow. But the long run, the Izzo factor, is the season or sometimes even a little bit more into their second season."
This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan State's tough schedule backed by NET rankings; Big Ten next