East Lansing — There's no doubt Michigan State is facing a critical stage in its season, and coach Tom Izzo knows it.
"This is an important stretch coming up for us," Izzo said.
Penn State's visit to the Breslin Center at 7 Wednesday night begins a run of six straight games that — on paper, at least — provide the Spartans an opportunity to jump back in the Big Ten race and solidify their NCAA Tournament aspirations.
After facing a Nittany Lions team that is winless in the Big Ten, the Spartans travel to Nebraska and Rutgers, are home against Michigan and Illinois and then travel to Northwestern. It's a chance to string together some victories, but at 12-6 overall and 3-2 in the league, Izzo isn't looking at the big picture. He's simply focused on getting his team back in the win column after Saturday's loss at Maryland.
"I've changed with this team because I'm not sure we're capable, mentally," Izzo said. "I don't think we're as tough a team, but I really believe that we have tried to take the one-game-at-a-time approach more than ever. Battle cries in the other years would be wherever the Final Four is or wherever this or that. The only battle cry now at every huddle is whatever team we're playing, because I don't think this team can handle it. Doesn't mean it's good, bad or indifferent. But I don't talk to them about anybody else. I don't talk to them about 'Well, we can win a couple games.' "
A lot of the reasoning is based in the fact, as Izzo said, he's not sure his team can handle the idea of winning six straight games. And the performance last weekend was evidence of that.
Guards Travis Trice and Denzel Valentine combined to score only 14 points and shoot 6-for-17 from the field while Branden Dawson missed multiple layups. It proved those players need to be at their best, as they were the previous week when the Spartans won three straight.
"I still like where this team can go," Izzo said, "but our three guys, our upperclassmen, have to play well or we're asking for too much out of other people."
The other issue is the fact there are few easy nights in the Big Ten.
While Penn State is 0-5 in conference play, it has been in nearly every game it has played and lost last week by three at Indiana and in overtime at home to Purdue after leading by three in the final seconds.
"The conference isn't poor," Izzo said. "The problem with the conference is it's almost too good. Does anybody want to play the 12th-place team in our league, the 13th-place team in our league? Because I think Rutgers was (picked the) unanimous last-place team or second-to-last place team and our first-place team got beat by them. So, the league is not as good at the top. I said that at the beginning of the year, I'm saying it at the middle of the year, I might say it at the end of the year. But the league is definitely deeper, better.
"I think the way you should rate a conference is what are teams seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12. That's what's hard, there's never an easy game. … I think there are a lot of teams in this league that are good enough to be really good and good enough to get beat by anybody. I think Penn State's in that group."
The Nittany Lions compiled a 12-1 nonconference record and have been competitive on most nights in the Big Ten because of the play of senior guard D.J. Newbill, who is leading the conference in scoring at 21.7 points a game.
It's enough, along with the struggles of some of the conferences more traditional powers — Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State included — that has Penn State coach Pat Chambers feeling optimistic despite his team's record.
"I feel like we're on the playing field, I do," Chambers said. "The other teams in the league, everybody's going to go through these rough patches. The Big Ten is a gauntlet. It challenges you mentally and physically on a nightly basis."
It will also have Izzo and the Spartans sticking to the one-game-at-a-time theory.
"It will be a challenge because they will be hungry," Izzo said. "They know they've played with everyone."
Penn State at Michigan State
Tip-off: 7 Wednesday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
TV/radio: BTN/WJR 760
Records: Penn State 12-6, 0-5 Big Ten; Michigan State 12-6, 3-2
Outlook: The game will be the 400th in the history of the Breslin Center, a place Penn State has only won once. … The building opened in 1989 and MSU is 179-39 in Big Ten play, including 138-26 under coach Tom Izzo. … Senior D.J. Newbill leads the Big Ten in scoring (21.7) but is the only Penn State player averaging double figures.