After going 5-1 during a hectic portion of its schedule, Michigan State will likely be challenged only once more before beginning Big Ten play in nearly four weeks.
A matchup with Arkansas-Pine Bluff is not considered the test.The 19th-ranked Spartans can capture a 69th straight home win over an unranked non-conference opponent Wednesday night against the Golden Lions in the first meeting between the programs.Michigan State (6-2) posted its most lopsided win of the season in an 84-39 blowout of Nicholls State on Saturday, ending an exhausting string in which it played six games in 15 days. The schedule left little time for Tom Izzo to work with his team."We needed a game like this," Izzo said. "This one-day prep thing has been a joke."The schedule included a 67-59 road loss at Miami (Fla.) in last week's ACC-Big Ten Challenge, snapping a five-game winning streak that included victories over then-No. 7 Kansas and a 6-1 Boise State team."I told my staff on the bench, seeing (reserve guard Russell) Byrd hit a shot and smile, sometimes you don't get to do that when you're playing some of the teams we're playing all the time and not getting much break or much practice time," Izzo said. "So the good of playing a tough schedule a lot of times is the benefit is at the end, the bad is sometimes guys never get some confidence."Even against a weak Nicholls State team, Saturday's dominant performance should help that confidence. The game was largely over at halftime as the Spartans held the Colonels to five field goals and forced 15 turnovers while taking a 37-13 lead. Michigan State ended the half with a 27-4 run.Keith Appling, who averages a team-best 16.1 points, scored a game-high 13 and was 1 of 2 from beyond the arc. The junior guard is shooting considerably better from long range this season, hitting 42.9 percent of his 3-pointers compared to 25.0 percent a year ago.He is also leading his team with 4.4 assists per contest."I'm not an easy guy to please," Izzo said. "But I'm really excited for him and proud of him for what he's doing right now in an incredible way."The Golden Lions (1-6) are struggling through their own brutal schedule, playing the eighth of 12 straight games away from home to start the season. The latest stop was an 80-59 loss at Oregon on Saturday, their third straight game against a Pac-12 opponent.Senior guard Lazabian Jackson, who averages a team-high 12.1 points, was 4 of 13 from the floor against the Ducks to finish with 10 points.Arkansas-Pine Bluff doesn't appear to match up well inside with the Spartans, who own a plus-10.3 rebounding margin and outscore their opponents by an average of 14.0 in the paint. The Golden Lions, losers of 40 straight non-conference road games, are outrebounded by an average of 10.0 per game -- one of the worst marks in the country.A Dec. 22 home meeting with Texas appears to be the Spartans' only remaining challenge before opening conference play on Dec. 31 against No. 14 Minnesota."We get something different now -- we'll actually get two days to practice for our next two games, and that will seem like an eternity for this team," Izzo said. "But I think we can at least say we took a small step forward with a lot of steps to go, but a small step forward and it was good for us."