East Lansing — A little more than a week ago, Michigan State was coming off a home loss to Illinois and dealing with life on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
Heading into Sunday's rematch with the Illini, the Spartans appear to be surging at just the right time.
After Tuesday's 80-67 victory at Michigan, Michigan State has won five of six and has watched its postseason stock rise significantly. The Spartans now have an RPI of 32, one of the best indicators of NCAA Tournament status. They are also No. 21 in the KenPom ratings and 18th in ESPN's BPI.
"People kept asking if we were satisfied with two wins (last week)," senior Branden Dawson said. "We can't be satisfied, can't be comfortable with the way we've been playing. People expect more from Michigan State, so we can't let (complacency) get the best of us."
Flirting with ending a 17-year NCAA Tournament streak can do that, but coach Tom Izzo isn't crediting life on the bubble for leading to the latest run from his team.
"I don't get into all those things anymore," he said. "I'm just trying to get this team to play better. If we play better I know we'll be good enough to get in, and if we play better I think we can win games at a lot of places."
That theory will be tested in the final two-plus weeks of the regular season. Michigan State is in good position, but with road games against Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana looming, the journey becomes more difficult.
It presents plenty of pitfalls, but it also provides Michigan State (18-8, 9-4 Big Ten) with opportunities to enhance its standing.
"Look at what we've got left," Izzo said. "We're at Wisconsin, we're at Indiana, we're at Illinois and then we got two of the hotter teams in Minnesota and Purdue at home. I don't feel very good about anything now except the big win (against Michigan), but I think we have a lot of work to do yet, and we have to become more disciplined.
"We just have to be solid if we're gonna close some people out. But all in all, to go on the road and play rivalry games that for the most part we controlled, I do have to give our team some credit for that."
They were solid against the Wolverines and, relative to early in the Big Ten season, playing better overall.
"I still feel the same about this team," Izzo said. "We're not a great team yet. We're better defensively than I thought we'd be. We're a little better rebounding than I thought we'd be, but we have some deficiencies. We're just continuing trying to tweak and control them. ... I think we've got a lot of room for improvement."
Dawson continues to be Michigan State's most consistent player, and recorded his eighth double-double (season-high 23 points, 13 rebounds) in conference against Michigan. And senior guard Travis Trice had a big game off the bench, scoring 22 (four 3-pointers) and handing out seven assists.
The insertion of freshman guard Lourawls Nairn into the starting lineup has infused some energy, while the duo of Gavin Schilling and Matt Costello at center combined for 17 points (8-for-8).
But even in the one-sided victory, the Spartans didn't get much out of Denzel Valentine and Bryn Forbes.
"I think our role players are starting to figure out their role," Izzo said. "I was happy with the shots Bryn took. I thought Denzel should have had six, seven assists."