The heart of the schedule quickly is approaching for the No. 18 MSU men’s basketball team.
After Wednesday’s game against Penn State (8-8 overall, 0-4 Big Ten), eight of the Spartans’ (14-3, 3-1) next 14 games come against teams currently ranked in the AP Top 25. Of the final 15 games, eight come on the road, including historically tough venues at Wisconsin and Purdue.
But before going to battle with conference heavyweights No. 2 Indiana, No. 5 Michigan and No. 11 Ohio State, head coach Tom Izzo emphasized this week the importance of monitoring their own play against the Nittany Lions before seeing how they’ll stack up against the best of the Big Ten.
“Going into this week we’ve got to play better at Penn State as they went on the road and played pretty well against Purdue, real well against Wisconsin and then we have a big home game with Ohio State,” Izzo said. “It is an incredible weekend or week for us.”
Before entering Big Ten play, Penn State opened the season with an 8-4 record. Since, the Nittany Lions have dropped all four of their Big Ten games by an average of nearly 17 points per contest, with the closest coming in a 9-point loss against Wisconsin.
After losing their star point guard Tim Frazier to an Achilles injury in November 2012, Penn State has relied on the scoring output of guards D.J. Newbill and Jermaine Marshall, who each average more than 14 points per game.
Yet, Penn State hasn’t nailed down a marquee victory this season and ranks near the bottom of the Big Ten in many statistical categories, including scoring offense and defense, field goal percentage and turnover margin.
However, Izzo was critical of his team earlier this week for playing to the level of competition, rather than to the skill on their own roster — a notion senior center Derrick Nix would like to avoid today.
“We all remind each other that we have to go to Penn State, and they play hard,” Nix said. “They’re probably the hardest playing team in the Big Ten. We got to let each other know that it’s not (going to) be easy and we need to go in there ready to play.”
Coming off a hard-fought victory over Nebraska earlier this week, the Spartans still have plenty to work on against the last place Nittany Lions, particularly with the backcourt.
Against the Cornhuskers, MSU guards Keith Appling, Travis Trice, Gary Harris and Denzel Valentine combined to shoot 4-for-26 (15.4 percent) from the field. In contrast, Nix, center Adreian Payne and guard/forward Branden Dawson hit 18-of-22 shots (81.8 percent) and carried the Spartans to the win.
For Appling, looking to be personally more aggressive while improving the overall play of the team’s guards would be a virtue on the road against Penn State.
“We just gotta play better,” Appling said. “I mean, the guards specifically because if we had been on the road (against Nebraska), the ending result would have been different. We just came in (Monday) and watched a whole ton of film and we came to the conclusion we gotta play better; it’s as simple as that.”
The Spartans take on Penn State at Bryce Jordan Center in University Park, Penn., tonight at 7 p.m. (Big Ten Network).