East Lansing — Valuing the basketball hasn’t exactly been Michigan State’s strong suit this season.
Game after game, the Spartans have had a penchant for giving the ball away, entering this week turning the ball over 13.7 times a game, which ranks 12th in the Big Ten.
However, if Saturday’s victory over then-No. 3 Purdue is any indication, there’s a chance the Spartans are starting to turn things around as they had just six turnovers, including only one in the second half. It was the fourth time this season they haven’t reached double-digits in turnovers and matched the fewest they’ve had in a game.
“The turnovers. Yeah, you know, we had four in the first 8 minutes, two the rest of the game and only one the second half,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after the 68-65 victory over Purdue.
“For us, that’s like Christmas, Fourth of July and any other major holiday pulled into one. For them, it’s kind of the norm.”
It’s usually the norm for most of the top teams in the nation. Michigan State — which moved up to No. 2 in the nation Monday in the Associated Press poll (No. 1 in the coaches’ poll) — has been the exception.
Three times this season, the Spartans have turned the ball over more than 20 times. What’s more remarkable is the fact they’ve won all three of those games — against North Florida (21), North Carolina (24) and Illinois (25).
Committing just six against Purdue, a team that gave it away just three times, was critical.
“It’s definitely one of the things you’ve got to do to win games,” sophomore point guard Cassius Winston said. “We took care of the ball tonight.”
As the point guard, Winston’s ability to value the possession while still being able to run the offense is vital. He leads the Big Ten in assists per game at 7.1. However, he’s turned the ball over 71 times this season and has an assist/turnover ratio of 2.7.
In the win over Purdue, Winston had 10 assists and three turnovers, but he gave the ball away just once in the second half. That, along with his 10 points and solid defense in 36 minutes of action was the difference, Izzo said.
“The guy that had his best game as a Spartan was Cassius,” Izzo said, “because he guarded, he rebounded, he assisted and he made some plays. The job he did defensively, staying between his man and the basket, makes me proud of him and angry that that’s what he’s got to do all the time.”
Winston has been solid most of the season, but there have been some games Izzo wasn’t pleased with the Winston’s effort and focus. The win at Iowa early last week was one of those games.
Izzo opted for senior Tum Tum Nairn for long stretches of the second half before Winston returned late and helped the Spartans rally for the victory.
“I’m hard on Cassius. I’m hard on my point guards, I always have been and I always will be,” Izzo said. “But he’s starting to learn how to respond. He came over, he’s talking to me, giving me plays that he thinks would work. I mean, I sometimes forget he’s only a sophomore, it’s just that I don’t have time for him to only be a sophomore because I think we got a team good enough to do some damage.”
And Winston is the one driving the bus, meaning his ability to create with turning the ball over will be critical down the stretch.
It’s a stretch Michigan State (24-3, 12-2 Big Ten) enters with a shot at competing for the conference championship. Just a game behind Ohio State with four games to play, the Spartans will play three on the road, including Tuesday night at Minnesota.
The Golden Gophers are a shell of the team they were to begin the season. Big man Reggie Lynch has been suspended while injuries have knocked Amir Coffey, Dupree McBrayer and Eric Curry from the lineup. It’s something Minnesota has been unable to overcome as it has one victory in the last 11 games.
“I’m remembering watching our first game against Indiana and looking at our record at 13-3 and 2-1 — and then all of a sudden the bottom falls out,” coach Richard Pitino told the Minneapolis Star Tribune after Friday’s loss to Indiana. “I don't think any college basketball team can sustain losing three starters and losing their first guy off the bench. It's not an excuse. I think it's just valid.”
Minnesota still has Jordan Murphy and Nate Mason, two players who can give teams fits.
However, with road games remaining against Northwestern and Wisconsin with a home date with Illinois mixed in, the Spartans should be in fine shape if the turnovers stay on the low side, something that becomes a challenge away from home.
“All road games are tough,” sophomore Miles Bridges said. “Minnesota’s tough on the road. Northwestern’s tough on the road. Wisconsin is going to be tough on the road. They’re all going to be tough for us. We’ve just got to stick together like we have been.”
MICHIGAN STATE AT MINNESOTA
Tip-off: 9 Tuesday, Williams Arena, Minneapolis
Records: No. 2 Michigan State 24-3, 12-2 Big Ten; Minnesota 14-13, 3-11
Outlook: The Spartans play three of their final four games on the road, beginning with Minnesota and Northwestern this week. … Michigan State dished out 21 assists against Purdue, the 13th time this season it had at least 20. … Jordan Murphy is leading the Minnesota in scoring (17.4) and rebounding (11.6). He leads the Big Ten in rebounding by more than two rebounds per game.