Big challenges, big opportunities await Michigan State in final four games

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing – A week ago, Tom Izzo was lamenting the fact Michigan State had likely played itself out of the race for a third straight Big Ten championship.

However, that hardly means there’s nothing to play for over the final two weeks of the regular season, a tough four-game stretch that got even more interesting by Sunday afternoon as Penn State lost at Indiana and Wisconsin beat Rutgers at home to create a four-way tie for second place along with Michigan State and Iowa.

Cassius Winston and Tom Izzo

All four teams sit at 10-6 in conference play with four games to go. While all four are chasing a Maryland team that holds a solid two-game lead at 12-4 in Big Ten play, they’ll all be jockeying for position in the Big Ten tournament as well as pushing to improve their seeding in the NCAA Tournament.

It’s a logjam, to be sure, and one that could be even more crowded by Monday night. If Illinois avoids an upset at home to Nebraska, the Fighting Illini will join the 10-6 group.

“This is the Big Ten man, this is the Big Ten,” Penn State coach Patrick Chambers said after the Nittany Lions’ loss at Indiana, their second straight after winning eight in a row. “There's going to be nights where you play really hard and compete, which I thought both teams did, and you're going to lose. It's going to happen. It happened versus Illinois and it happened here today. We got to right the ship and get back to work.”

That’s been the reality all season in the Big Ten – there are no easy games.

Even Maryland has been in plenty of dogfights, holding off Nebraska by two at home before erasing a seven-point deficit in the final three minutes at Michigan State last week.

It’s the toughest conference in the country, and for the Spartans, the final four games might be as difficult as any of the others fighting to stay in the top four spots. The run for Michigan State (18-8, 10-6) begins Tuesday at home against Iowa (19-8, 10-6), the only meeting between the teams this season. On Saturday, it’s a trip to Maryland.

The final week of the regular season includes a trip to Penn State followed by a home game with Ohio State.

“(We have to) figure out what it's going to take to win the conference tournament and go play the NCAA Tournament because you don't have as good a shot to win the league,” Izzo said. “There's no secrets about that. I do think we still have a chance to win a lot of games to increase our seeding.”

Kyle Ahrens

The flip side of the daunting final four games is the fact it also comes with plenty of opportunity as each is a Quad 1 game. At No. 13 in the most recent NET rankings, the Spartans aren’t worried about making the NCAA Tournament field. However, more losses will slide them down the seeding list, making any run that much tougher.

A better seeding typically means less travel, but as Izzo has pointed out many times, his Michigan State teams have done it all in the NCAA Tournament. The Spartans have made the Final Four as high seeds and low seeds, and they’ve been bounced on the first weekend at both ends of the seeding spectrum as well.

Winning at least two of the next four games would likely mean Michigan State would hold steady where it is now. At ESPN and USA Today, the Spartans are currently a No. 5 seed while they’re a No. 6 at CBS Sports.

Hold serve at home and pull out at least one road victory and those numbers could jump with a chance to improve even more at the Big Ten tournament, an event Michigan State won last year for the sixth time.

Finishing as a top-four seed in the conference tournament is critical because it means a bye to the quarterfinals on Friday. Trying to predict that is like throwing names in a hat.

Michigan State could still finish as the top seed. However, lose all four of their remaining games and have the rest of the conference fall in a certain way, and the Spartans could end up as the No. 11 seed playing on Wednesday night in the Big Ten tournament.

Experience that kind of freefall and there’s also no telling that Michigan State’s NCAA Tournament seeding would be.

So, even though a regular-season title is all but lost – the Spartans would need to win out and get plenty of help to move to the top of the standings – there’s plenty left at stake over the final two weeks of the season.

And as Michigan State prepares for its final push, the formula is fairly simple.

“Just taking it one game at a time,” fifth-year senior Kyle Ahrens said. “You can't focus on however many games we have left. I’m putting the last game aside now and I’m not focused on any game right now but (Iowa).

“That's what we’ve got to keep doing. We talked about that as a team. We're just taking it one game at a time. That's what we did last year. That's what our motto was, ‘Take it one game at a time. Don't focus on the future. Don't focus on what's happening next, focus on the now and the present.’”

The now and the present is here for Michigan State, and it could say a lot about what happens in March.

The final four

Remaining Big Ten schedules for Michigan State and Michigan:

Michigan State (18-9, 10-6 Big Ten)

Tuesday vs. Iowa, 7 p.m.

Saturday at Maryland, 8 p.m.

March 3 at Penn State, 7 p.m.

March 8 vs. Ohio State, 4:30 p.m.

Michigan (18-9, 9-7)

Thursday vs. Wisconsin, 7 p.m.

Sunday at Ohio State, 4 p.m.

March 5 vs. Nebraska, 6:30 p.m.

March 8 at Maryland, noon

Twitter: @mattcharboneau