East Lansing — For 17 consecutive seasons, there has rarely been a question where Michigan State would be playing come the middle of March — the NCAA Tournament.
Ever since the Spartans reached the Sweet 16 in coach Tom Izzo's third year, playing in the NCAA Tournament has become a rite of passage at Michigan State. And until last season, it meant getting to a Final Four for any player who stuck around four seasons.
That run ended with a loss in the Elite Eight to eventual national champion Connecticut, but it didn't tarnish the success Michigan State has had in 17 seasons. One national championship, six Final Fours, a pair of Elite Eight finishes and four Sweet 16s highlight the run that has Izzo seventh in NCAA Tournament winning percentage (.732, 41-15) among active coaches.
But with seven games remaining in the regular season, beginning with today's game against Ohio State, Michigan State finds itself in an unfamiliar position: Perched on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
Heading into today's matchup against No. 23 Ohio State, Michigan State is in, at least according to the "experts."
■At ESPN.com, Joe Lunardi's Bracketology has Michigan State as a No. 9 seed in the South Region facing No. 8 Georgia in the first round and potentially facing No. 1 Duke — a team that beat Michigan State by 10 points in the second game this season — in the second round.
■At CBSsports.com, Jerry Palm isn't as high on Michigan State, placing it in a play-in game as a No. 12 seed against Boise State in the Midwest Region, with the winner taking on No. 5 Baylor.
All of it, of course, is speculation for a team that has been as inconsistent as any in a Big Ten that has one elite team and a large group of mediocre ones. Michigan State is firmly among the mediocre.
What exactly the Spartans need to do to lock up an 18th consecutive tournament bid is the question. Palm says the answer is simple.
"They need to start beating people," he said. "Their profile is really thin. They only have four top-100 wins, and the win at Iowa is the only reason they're in the bracket because that is a team in the field (they beat) away from home. But their record — only 2-6 against the top 50 and 4-6 against the top 100 with two bad losses."
The two "bad" losses were at Nebraska and home to Texas Southern.
But the opportunity also exists to substantially improve that thin resume.
Michigan State (16-8, 7-4) has an RPI of 46 and takes on an Ohio State team today with an RPI of 35. After that, Michigan State heads to Michigan, which doesn't offer a top-50 win potentially, and has road games against Illinois, Indiana and Wisconsin among its final seven games.
"The thing is about them is that just about every game coming up is a team that can help them," Palm said. "Michigan is not a bracket team and Minnesota probably is not. Purdue is borderline, but losing those doesn't hurt as much as say, Northwestern.
"But just winning those three home games probably is not good enough. They have to beat somebody away from home. Maybe it is enough, but I wouldn't count on them winning three home games being enough."
And as for all those close losses to the likes of Kansas, Notre Dame and Maryland?
"If all you have is good losses you've got nothing," Palm said. "Of all the things you can say about your profile, a good loss is the least positive thing you can say. Even elite teams have some head-scratchers, but the problem for Michigan State is it hasn't done anything to make up for it."
Turning that trend could begin today, but it will take a far more consistent effort, one that sees Michigan State play as loose as it did in Tuesday's victory over Northwestern.
"We were just out there playing, playing fearless," junior guard Denzel Valentine said. "That's how we've got to play if we want to win. We've just got to have a different mindset, a little bit mad and frustrated and all those things."
Whether the Spartans can further secure an 18th straight NCAA appearance in the next seven games or be forced to make a run in the conference tournament remains to be seen.
What is certain is they need every win they can get.
"They have the profile of a team barely hanging on," Palm said.
at Michigan State
Tip-off: noon today, Breslin Center, East Lansing
Records: No. 23 Ohio State 19-6 (8-4 Big Ten), Michigan State 16-8 (7-4)
Outlook: Ohio State freshman D'Angelo Russell leads the conference in scoring (21.3) and assists (5.7), while ranking second in 3-pointers (2.9). ... Overall, Shannon Scott (6.2) and Russell (5.5) rank first and second in the Big Ten in assists.
A look at Michigan State's remaning games:
■Today: vs. Ohio State, noon ESPN
■Tuesday: at Michigan, 9 p.m. ESPN
■Sunday, Feb. 22: at Illinois, 7:30 p.m. BTN
■Thursday, Feb. 26: vs. Minnesota, 7 p.m. BTN
■Sunday, March 1: at Wisconsin, 4 p.m. CBS
■Wednesday, March 4: vs. Purdue, 8 p.m. BTN
■Saturday, March 7: at Indiana, noon ESPN