There’s only one way the Big Ten could have been competitive in its annual league-wide challenge against the deeper, stronger ACC this season.
Ask Michigan State to play every game.
After most of the rest of the Big Ten fell flat on its faces the past three days, Michigan State showed why it’s undeniably the class of the league. The third-ranked Spartans bullied one of the ACC’s elite teams Thursday night in East Lansing, racing to a 20-point halftime lead over fifth-ranked Notre Dame, withstood an early second-half charge from the Irish and cruised to a comfortable 81-63 victory.
If Michigan State was impressive in holding high-powered North Carolina to only 45 points in Sunday’s PK80 title game, the Spartans delivered an even more complete performance in Thursday’s first half against Notre Dame. They opened up a 19-point lead after only 10 minutes by disrupting the Irish’s rhythm on offense and converting missed shots into transition points at the other end of the floor.
The key to Michigan State’s early defensive brilliance was Jaren Jackson’s ability to bother Notre Dame All-American candidate Bonzie Colson with his length. Colson had two of his first shots of the game blocked and didn’t score his first point until Notre Dame already trailed by 18. The Irish bogged down as a result because they were unable to find enough other ways to initiate their offense.
It didn’t help that Notre Dame couldn’t string together stops most of the game. Sometimes Michigan State beat the Irish down floor and scored before their defense was even set. Other times it was Cassius Winston spotting up from behind the arc or Josh Langford knocking down mid-range jumpers. When all that failed, the longer, more athletic Spartans beat up Notre Dame on the glass, grabbing 15 offensive rebounds and turning many of them into second-chance points.
Notre Dame surged as close as within seven during the second half as foul trouble removed Jackson’s defensive presence from the floor and Michigan State’s turnover bugaboo reemerged. But the Irish got no closer as the Spartans regained their offensive mojo and stretched their lead to a comfortable margin once more.
Michigan State’s decisive victory salvaged a shred of pride for the Big Ten, but it certainly didn’t mask what a disappointment this year’s challenge has been for the league. The ACC won 11 of 14 matchups against the Big Ten this week, the largest margin of victory in the history of the challenge between the two leagues.
This week’s results only hammer home how difficult it is to envision a scenario where Michigan State doesn’t win the Big Ten with separation. Potential challengers Minnesota and Purdue at least have notched some marquee November wins, but the rest of the league has combined for zero victories over the KenPom top 50 and four over the KenPom top 100.
Preseason top 25 Northwestern has squelched some of its momentum from last season by losing to all three power-conference foes it has faced so far. Wisconsin has also fallen short of expectations with four early losses against quality opponents. Throw in a pair of ugly losses from Iowa against South Dakota State and Louisiana-Lafayette, and it’s safe to say the middle of the Big Ten hasn’t exactly lived up to expectations.
Even Michigan State got off to an underwhelming start with its Champions Classic loss to Marvin Bagley-less Duke, but the Spartans have performed like a title contender ever since. There aren’t many teams that can beat them when they limit their turnovers and get outside shooting from Langford and Matt McQuaid.
They’re unquestionably the team to beat in the beleaguered Big Ten, but they can also compete with the best of any league.
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