Tom Izzo has started to realize the importance of the tournament, especially in a season like this, where the play has been so competitive that a team ranked in the top 10 in the nation is playing on the opening day. (Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)
Chicago — Tom Izzo never has hidden the fact he believes winning the Big Ten regular-season title is a bigger deal than winning conference tournament.
To him, and many coaches around the conference, the grind of an 18-game schedule is more of an indicator which team is best.
But even Izzo has started to realize the importance of the tournament, especially in a season like this, where the play has been so competitive that a team ranked in the top 10 in the nation is playing on the opening day.
"This could be the start of changing the philosophy of the Big Ten," Izzo admitted as Michigan State prepared to face Iowa, which defeated Northwestern, 73-59, on Thursday. "I'll never figure that out. … A little more pressure on this (tournament), but a lot more grinding to be able to do something over a 2-1/2-month period. (Former Indiana coach) Bobby Knight was adamant about that. And I still agree with him."
Michigan State plays the final game today at about 9 p.m. at the United Center, and some have questioned whether this team has a title run in it, much the way last year's team did when it beat Ohio State and earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
The leader of that team — Draymond Green — has no doubt this version has what it takes.
"You have a Keith (Appling), who's going to run and control the game," said Green, now a rookie with the Golden State Warriors. "You have a guy in B.J. (Branden Dawson) who has the toughness and is physical and is not afraid to say nothing to nobody. You just have all those different guys. You have (Derrick) Nix, with the experience, not afraid to say nothing to nobody. All those guys put it together and I knew they'd be OK.
"There's not one team we can't match up with and beat."
And first up tonight is a game that will be against a team that is in a position where it must win to have any shot at reaching the NCAA Tournament.
Sixth-seeded Iowa (21-11), one of the Big Ten's hottest teams, could get in with a signature victory over Michigan State.
The Hawkeyes believe they let one get away when the Spartans visited in January and eked out a three-point victory. Leading scorer Roy Devyn Marble (Southfield-Lathrup) sat out that game with an ankle injury, but has been playing well.
Marble had 19 points, five rebounds and three steals in Thursday's victory over Northwestern.
It creates a team Izzo believes has a much different look.
"The Marble kid didn't even play against us, then he went into a slump, and now he's playing some of his best basketball," Izzo said. "(Melsahn) Basabe was in a slump then and now he's starting and playing a lot better. They're a lot different team, same characters, a lot different team."
Izzo understands the challenge Michigan State faces trying to beat a team playing to survive.
"I think that is why most of time there are upsets in these kinds of tournaments because people are playing for their NCAA lives," he said. "There is definitely a sense of urgency because everyone is dying to get in the NCAA Tournament. If it is handled right that can be a plus. It can also be undue pressure that makes you not play as well sometimes.
"I think when most people's backs are against the wall they probably perform at their best."