Wojo: Tom Izzo wants 'white elephant' off MSU's back

Bob Wojnowski
The Detroit News
Tom Izzo

East Lansing – Whether it’s an elephant in the room or a white elephant in his mind, Tom Izzo is seeing things he’s not used to seeing, and mixing metaphors he’s not used to mixing.

Izzo’s “white elephant” is Michigan State’s 19-year NCAA Tournament streak, which is in danger, although the depth of the danger is debatable. According to my personal bracketology, the Spartans are just about in, maybe 85 percent in. Most experts peg them a 9 or 10 seed, with one caveat: Don’t lose the conference tournament opener to Penn State or Nebraska.

The danger likely is real because a stumble Thursday would be considered a bad loss, and 14 losses are the most ever posted by a team that landed an at-large bid. The Spartans themselves did it in 2011 with a 19-14 mark.

Izzo first acknowledged the streak’s peril with his players five weeks ago. He doesn’t plan to remind them as the Spartans head to the Big Ten Tournament at 18-13, a record that normally doesn’t get many teams in. I think Michigan State should be in, as do most others. But no one’s sure, and here’s one way you can tell – Izzo is diligently touting what the Spartans have gone through, subtly (and not subtly) campaigning for a bid he thinks his team has earned.

“Would the eye test say we’re one of the 64 teams? Of course, prejudiciously, I would say yes,” Izzo said Tuesday. “I said I wasn’t going to politick … but from what we’ve accomplished, 10-8 record in the league; and as I’ve said, we’ve done a poor job as coaches, blame us, for not (touting) the strength of our conference.”

The Big Ten is one of the most-balanced conferences this season but it’s well short of the best. According to the RPI, it ranks fourth behind the ACC, Big 12 and Big East. Purdue won the regular season with a 14-4 mark, but is pegged by some as only a four seed in the NCAA Tournament.

Not a ‘shoo-in’

Michigan State starts three freshmen, including star Miles Bridges, which automatically made this one of the unique challenges of Izzo’s career.

Before the Spartans played at Nebraska on Feb. 2, they were 5-4 in the Big Ten and Izzo felt compelled to discuss the streak’s importance with his team.

Snub serves as big motivation for Spartans’ Nick Ward

“When I embraced that white elephant in the room, that was a scary time for me because I felt I went out on a limb,” Izzo said. “I thought our players embraced that. So I see no reason why they won’t embrace this week.”

Counting that 72-61 victory at Nebraska, Michigan State won six of 10 down the stretch, but suffered a pair of last-second defeats at Illinois and Maryland. The Spartans are in a clump with three other teams at 10-8 in the Big Ten and their RPI (49) is as good as any in that group – Michigan (46), Northwestern (54), Iowa (72).

Michigan State’s strength of schedule is strong, ninth in the country, although it lost to its toughest opponents — Arizona, Kentucky, Baylor, Duke. Izzo beats himself up for playing such a difficult slate with such a young team and vows to rethink his strategy. On top of that, Michigan State inexcusably fell at home to Northeastern 81-73, a loss that could haunt.

There are reasons for the Spartans’ bubble status, and some are being corrected. The freshmen have progressed nicely, and if Nick Ward can stay out of foul trouble, Michigan State has a terrific inside threat. Free-throw shooting has improved and turnovers have gone down.

But in March’s harsh glare, all imperfections are noted, and past success guarantees nothing. Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis is the selection committee chair but can’t be part of the Spartans debate. This will have to be settled on the court – if it hasn’t been already. bracket expert Jerry Palm said Michigan State is “definitely in position to get jumped by somebody” if it loses Thursday.

“I don’t feel comfortable that we’re a shoo-in for anything, for the tournament or advancing,” Izzo said. “But I don’t feel uncomfortable that we’re a longshot from anything either. … I think we are good enough to make a run, but we might not be. We might do everything in our power and it doesn’t work out. We’re a team that has a very, very, very small margin.

“I do have an appreciation that they’ve gone through something no Michigan State team in my 22 years has gone through, a younger team, the most injury-riddled. … It’s been amazing, and I hate to say it, but if the streak ends up being 19 out of 20, that’s better than 99 percent of America. But you’re damn right it’s important to me.”

Always ‘under pressure’

The Spartans aren’t used to such uncertainty -- their streak is the third-longest active one, behind Kansas (about to be 28) and Duke (about to be 22). Just a year ago, Michigan State won the Big Ten tournament, landed a 2 seed and was one of the NCAA favorites, but was shocked in the first round by Middle Tennessee State.

With four freshmen in prominent roles, these Spartans can’t fully understand what they’re facing, but they’ll get it soon enough. “I’m not worried they’re gonna feel the pressure,” Izzo said. “They’ve been under pressure all year. If it gets them at the end, then it gets us. If it doesn’t, then I think it makes us stronger.”

At least the Spartans could get that elephant off their back and Izzo wouldn’t have to juggle metaphors. If they do, the streak will have survived its greatest threat yet.

No. 12 Penn State/No. 13 Nebraska vs. No. 5 MSU

Tip-off: 2:30 Thursday, Verizon Center, Washington

TV/radio: ESPN/760

Records: Penn St. 14-17, (6-12 Big Ten)/Nebraska 12-18 (6-12); Michigan State 18-13 (10-8)

Outlook: Michigan State is playing on Thursday of the Big Ten tournament for the first time since it was the seventh-seed in 2011. … Michigan State swept the season series with Nebraska, but lost its only meeting of the season with Penn State, a game played at The Palestra in Philadelphia.