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Though opponents create potential hazards along the Spartan road to victory

Brutal nonconference schedule to test Spartans' resolve, skill

December 2, 2003

After fending off DePaul long enough to win the Coca-Cola Spartan Classic on Sunday, the No. 5 MSU men's basketball team's celebration lasted as long as the walk from the Breslin Center court to the locker room - a distance of about 60 feet.

Waiting for them inside the locker room on the team's dry-erase board was the entire roster, starting lineup and game plan for No. 6 Duke's trip to East Lansing this Wednesday.

The toughest nonconference schedule in the nation is the Spartans' (3-1) reality, and reality is setting in all around them.

After Wednesday's ACC/Big Ten Challenge matchup against the Blue Devils (3-1), MSU will play two neutral site games - in Auburn Hills on Dec. 6 and in Detroit on Dec. 13 - against No. 14 Oklahoma and No. 9 Kentucky, respectively. The Spartans come home against an improving South Florida team, travel to California to play UCLA, return home against Coppin State and finalize the nonconference murderers' row at the Carrier Dome against defending national champions and sixteenth-ranked Syracuse.

Five NCAA Tournament teams from last season - including No. 1 Kansas - and a combined 26-30 against the lot.

Make any sense yet?

"Playing these tough teams right away lets you know how good you are," junior guard Alan Anderson said.

"If you can last against these teams this early, it gives you a lot of confidence and prepares you."

MSU head coach Tom Izzo's explanation for scheduling a brutal nonconference stretch came back in October, when the Spartans had yet to play an exhibition game.

"I just want to make it clear that we're (scheduling tough) because I'm a selfish S.O.B.," he said. "I want to get something out of my career at MSU; I want to make sure that the players that I promised will play the best will be on TV. They're going to get a chance to go against the best, and I want to keep my promise to them."

Parity among the national championship contenders seems to be stronger this season as well, meddling the mix by essentially throwing ranking out the window when preparing for an opponent. Sports' cliché dictates that any team can beat any opponent on any given night, but for the first time in years, it's actually playing out.

"I think we've got to start expecting to win games and expecting to win these kinds of games," Izzo said. "Until you expect to win, I don't think you can win on a consistent basis."

In an atypically difficult nonconference season, though, there has been one certainty - injuries. Fractures and sprains derailed the Spartans in games last season, and maintaining good health throughout the December gauntlet will be essential to staying competitive.

"It would be a great benefit with the stretch of games we have coming up to stay healthy," junior guard Chris Hill said.

The Spartans already have lost freshman guard Brandon Cotton to a stress fracture injury for four to six weeks.

"It hurts the team (to lose Cotton) because he really was starting to come into his own," Hill said.

Injuries, coupled with lackadaisical-looking turnovers against Kansas and comeback scares from Bucknell and DePaul, though, point to one judgment: If the Spartans want to "cut 'em down" in March, overall play needs to improve.

"There's no question," Izzo said. "We're not maybe playing our best basketball yet. We're going to have to play our best basketball to win on Wednesday night."

But even after the final horn sounds in Syracuse, it'll be paramount to remember - the season some have destined to bring a national championship banner to Breslin Center still will have three months of basketball left in it.

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