East Lansing — Just having a chance — that’s all Michigan State was aiming for heading into the final two weeks of the regular season.
The victory Saturday over Purdue gave the Spartans just that — a shot at a Big Ten championship, something they haven’t captured since 2012.
It will take a perfect finish, and it will take Ohio State dropping at least one of its final four games. But Michigan State will spend the bulk of that time on the road as just one home game remains — Feb. 20 against Illinois. Two road games await this week with a trip to Minnesota on Tuesday and a visit Saturday to Northwestern. After the Illinois game, Michigan State closes it out Feb. 25 at Wisconsin.
“We have some big games left and (almost) all of ours are on the road,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “But, at least we give ourselves a chance and you guys that have been around me a lot, I’ve always said that you want to be in a position in the last two weeks. You want to be in a position to mathematically be able to win a championship.
“There’s so much left. I guess we still need some help. Hell, we needed some help in 2001, got it. We needed some help in ’99 and got it. When you play in a conference like this, you don’t do it on your own. … This gives us another chance, a time to hopefully build a little bit.”
The benefit for No. 4 Michigan State (24-3, 12-2 Big Ten) in the conference race is all four teams remaining are struggling this season. The Spartans, therefore, have a good shot at running the table heading into the Big Ten tournament.
Where it hurts is in the NCAA Tournament picture. There’s a chance Michigan State is the No. 1 team in the Associated Press rankings by Monday afternoon, but in the early seedings released Sunday by the tournament committee, the Spartans are just No. 11 overall and have a No. 3 seed in the South.
It doesn’t jibe with the polls, but Michigan State’s strength of schedule is just 94th and it also is just 3-2 in Quadrant 1 games, which are classified as games against top-30 teams at home, top-50 teams at neutral sites and top-75 teams on the road.
There are no opportunities to improve that mark over the last for games, either. That could only happen in the conference tournament.
In the meantime, the Spartans will focus on the momentum they’ve been building during an eight-game winning streak that was highlighted by the win over No. 3 Purdue.
“This just brings a lot of momentum, especially going down towards the end of the season,” said senior Gavin Schilling, who played a season-high 20 minutes Saturday while defending Purdue’s Isaac Haas. “A win like this brings us closer to our goals we set for ourselves. The younger guys are pumped, the older guys are pumped. We just have to keep it under control and not let this win kind of blow our heads up, and keep winning the rest of the season.”
The victory over Purdue was clearly the biggest of the season. The win over North Carolina is holding up well, and as big as the Notre Dame win was at the time, the Irish have plummeted in the rankings thanks in large part to an injury to Bonzi Colson.
But in the conference race, none have been bigger than Saturday’s as Michigan State shut down Purdue’s shooters and relied on its star — Miles Bridges — to hit the winning shot.
“The best teams we’ve had here we could play fast, we could play slow, we could smashmouth, we could finesse, we could do it on the rebounding and we could do it on the shooting,” Izzo said. “I think what won us the game was our depth, 47 points off the bench, following the game plan and our star took over the game. That’s kind of what you need in a tournament setting. But at the same time that is the best team, I think, we’ve played against.”
They might square off again in the conference tournament, and odds are, both teams would welcome it. Purdue would like another shot while Michigan State wouldn’t mind a chance to bolster its resume.
The key, however, is keeping the momentum, not faltering over the last two weeks and peaking as March arrives.
“I think we had some guys take some steps, and it’s one of the things I still like about this team, I do think we have a higher ceiling than a lot of teams,” Izzo said, “but whether you get there or not is a big key. … I think we took a step.”