DETROIT – After a long and uneventful month of December for college basketball in the state of Michigan, Big Ten play finally resumed this week with Michigan and MSU cruising to home victories.
The Wolverines and Spartans are expected to finish at the top of the loaded Big Ten this season, and so far, nothing has happened to change that expectation.
Michigan State has been dominant in conference play so far, starting 3-0 with wins at Rutgers and over Iowa and Northwestern by a combined 59 points. The 26-point thrashing of Northwestern was perhaps the most impressive showing of the season for Tom Izzo's squad.
Michigan wasn't quite as dominant against Penn State on Thursday, but it still cruised to a 13-point win to improve to 3-0 in conference play. The Wolverines have also thrashed Purdue by 19 points and survived a scare at the buzzer at Northwestern.
Seven Big Ten teams are ranked in the AP poll this week, more than any other conference in college basketball. It will be a major challenge for the two Michigan schools to navigate the new 20-game conference schedule with so many quality opponents.
But in every ranking and metric, Michigan and MSU are the top representatives from the Big Ten. They're both in the top eight of the AP poll. They're top-five teams in the KenPom rankings and top seven in the NET rankings.
The preseason hype that tabbed the in-state rivals as the class of the Midwest has come to fruition, with Michigan State living up to high expectations and Michigan exceeding modest ones.
Ohio State, Indiana and Nebraska are worthy competitors in the league, but when the dust settles in early March, the two Michigan teams are expected to be at the top.
Why the schedule matters
The move to 20 conference games alleviated some of the schedule imbalance problems in the Big Ten, but there are too many teams to make the regular season race completely fair.
With 14 teams in the conference, each one plays seven teams twice -- once at home and once on the road -- and the six other teams once -- three only at home and three only on the road.
Obviously, that creates inherent advantages in the Big Ten race.
Last season, for example, Michigan State happened to have a very favorable conference schedule. Only four other Big Ten teams finished with a winning record in conference play and MSU didn't have to play any of them twice. Also, three of the four games were at home.
Michigan State went 2-2 in those games but dominated the rest of the league en route to a regular season title.
Michigan appears to be in a similar situation this season and hopes to take advantage, as the Spartans did last year.
Big Ten tiers
Even though most teams have played 14 games this season, we won't know how good they all are until deeper into Big Ten play.
At a glance, though, there appear to be three tiers forming in the conference.
In the top tier, Michigan and Michigan State are joined by Ohio State, Indiana, Nebraska, Wisconsin and Purdue. These teams are expected to compete for a top four spot in the Big Ten, which would result in a double bye in the Big Ten Tournament.
Then, there are the teams that could enter the top group and are expected to be NCAA Tournament teams. This tier consists of Minnesota, Maryland and Iowa.
The bottom tier is made up of Penn State, Northwestern, Illinois and Rutgers. These teams are likely not going to the NCAA Tournament.
Michigan State's schedule
Two games against: Rutgers, Iowa, Ohio State, Purdue, Nebraska, Indiana, Michigan
Only in East Lansing: Maryland, Minnesota, Northwestern
Only on the road: Penn State, Illinois, Wisconsin
Michigan State's 2018-19 schedule appears to be much more difficult than last year's, not only because the Big Ten is better, but because it will play most of the top teams twice.
Of the six other teams in the top tier of the conference, Michigan State will play five of them twice. The only team in that group that they play once is Wisconsin, and that meeting will come on the road.
After a year in which Michigan State only played one road game against a good Big Ten team -- an 80-64 loss at Ohio State -- the Spartans will play six such games: at Ohio State, Purdue, Nebraska, Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan.
From the middle tier, it will also play at Iowa -- MSU already thrashed the Hawkeyes at home in December -- and host Maryland and Minnesota. For a team that typically takes care of business at home, Michigan State should be in good shape against those teams at the Breslin Center.
Playing Penn State and Illinois on the road is much more preferable to playing at Maryland or Minnesota, so in terms of the lower tiers, Michigan State's schedule could be worse. It also gets a home game against Rutgers after winning in Piscataway last month.
What makes the MSU schedule so difficult is that it includes road games against each of the top six other teams in the conference. Playing Wisconsin, Minnesota and Maryland once apiece eliminates the worst-case scenario, though.
Two games against: Northwestern, Indiana, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Penn State, Maryland, Michigan State
Only in Ann Arbor: Nebraska, Ohio State, Purdue
Only on the road: Rutgers, Illinois, Iowa
The most favorable aspect of Michigan's schedule is that it doesn't play any of the other top-tier teams only on the road.
Three of the top teams in the conference -- Nebraska, Ohio State and Purdue -- play in Ann Arbor this season without Michigan making a return trip. That's a huge advantage in terms of potential tiebreakers if the Wolverines can take care of business at home.
Michigan State, Indiana and Wisconsin are the only top-tier teams Michigan has to play twice, so while MSU plays all six of the other top teams on the road, Michigan will only play half of them.
The Wolverines also have the benefit of playing two of the bottom-tier teams -- Northwestern and Penn State -- twice.
Michigan got an easier draw against the top-tier teams, but if the middle tier ends up being stronger than expected, the schedule will be much tougher. The Wolverines have to play twice against Minnesota and Maryland while playing Iowa on the road.
Playing Rutgers and Illinois on the road is an advantage because Michigan should be able to beat those teams at any venue. Trips to Champaign and Piscataway are certainly less daunting than if Michigan had to travel to Lincoln, Columbus or West Lafayette.
What to expect
While the schedule seems to set up favorably for Michigan this year, it won't matter if John Beilein's team can't take advantage. The Wolverines have to win their home games and play tough on the road to keep up in this deep league.
Both Michigan and Michigan State sit at 3-0 in the league heading into the weekend. Michigan has beat two bottom-tier teams and one top-tier team, while MSU has beat two bottom-tier teams and one middle-tier team.
Much tougher tests are on the horizon for both teams. Michigan State travels to Columbus on Saturday for a massive matchup with the Buckeyes. Michigan has a tough January, with two games against Indiana, a road date with Wisconsin and the only matchup of the year against Ohio State.
Michigan and MSU look like the favorites heading into the heart of conference play, but we'll know for sure by the end of the month.