Quite a grind: Expanded schedule, more ranked teams make Big 10 men's basketball tough

Oakland guard Braden Norris, right, looks to shoot as Michigan State forward Kenny Goins, left, and guard Cassius Winston box in Oakland forward Xavier Hill-Mais during the first half of their game on Friday in East Lansing. (AP photo)

AP Sports Writer
The Big Ten’s expanded schedule is shaping up to be quite a grind.
After starting the season with only three teams in the AP Top 25, the league now has six. That’s significant at a time when the Big Ten has increased the number of conference games. Each of the league’s men’s basketball teams will play 20 conference games now — up from 18 a season ago.
Right now, there’s a bit of a lull in the schedule, but league play resumes in early January.
“It’s the toughest year to go to 20 games,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I think it’s great. It’s going to be hard on all of us.”
Izzo’s team won the Big Ten last season, but rival Michigan took the conference tournament for a second straight year — and then went all the way to the national title game before losing to Villanova. No. 2 Michigan and No. 8 Michigan State look like the class of the league so far this season, but there’s plenty of competition.
No. 13 Ohio State, No. 15 Wisconsin, No. 23 Indiana, No. 24 Iowa and unranked Nebraska have all had their moments.
It will be a while before Michigan and Michigan State face each other. They play twice toward the end of the season, on Feb. 24 and March 9. By then, the buildup could be immense. The Wolverines are still undefeated after routing Villanova on the road and North Carolina at home. The Spartans have losses to Kansas and Louisville, but their resume includes a 22-point win over Iowa, a 20-point win over UCLA and a 10-point victory over Texas.
Michigan and Michigan State lost key players to the NBA in Moe Wagner, Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson, but they’ve looked formidable anyway. Freshman Iggy Brazdeikis has fit in right away for the Wolverines, who remain a stellar team defensively.
“End of the season will tell us whether this is our best defensive team ever. Some of the numbers would say that,” Michigan coach John Beilein said. “The whole idea is keeping them out of transition, and then getting us into transition is huge for us.”
Michigan State, meanwhile, is averaging a league-best 87.6 points per game behind the experienced trio of Cassius Winston, Nick Ward and Joshua Langford.
The league schedule actually began back in November, and each team already has two Big Ten games under its belt. It won’t be long before it all starts up again.
“We’ve just got to, I think, get fresh legs back, getting the last nonconference game out of the way, and say, ‘OK, this is now the real stuff,'” Beilein said.
Here are a few more things to watch in the Big Ten:


MOVING BACK: The last two Big Ten Tournaments were played in Washington and New York, after the league expanded to add Maryland and Rutgers. The event is back in the Midwest now, in Chicago.
By the time the conference tourney starts, these teams should be plenty familiar with each other.