East Lansing — Tom Izzo is as happy as anyone that his team has won four straight and has turned what looked like a precarious NCAA Tournament position into a solid one in fairly short order.
But don't think the Michigan State coach is ready to declare the Spartans a finished product.
"We made some improvements but I think everybody would agree we have the toughest schedule (to finish the regular season,)" Izzo said after Michigan State's victory Sunday night over Illinois. "At Illinois, at Indiana, at Wisconsin, Purdue and Minnesota at home. I don't think there is a weak sister in that group. I think they're all potential tournament teams."
That last point can be debated, but after taking care of the first of three difficult road games with the win Sunday over the Illini, the Spartans coach at least conceded things were headed in the right direction.
And much of that has been because of the play of seniors Travis Trice and Branden Dawson, as well as junior Denzel Valentine.
"I'm not changing the ceiling now," Izzo said. "The ceiling for me is always get better every game and see where it takes you, but don't anoint us or anything. We won a good game, a big game, but we've lost enough doing poor things that that's in my memory bank, too.
"I think we're growing a little bit, I think we're maturing a little bit, I thought Dawson early was a man, I thought Trice late was and Valentine was steady the whole time."
That is starting to become the rule as opposed to the exception during Michigan State's four-game streak. Too many times early in the season, all three were not playing well at the same time.
But more often than not, the three have been the Spartans' best players during a stretch that has included six wins in the last seven games. Valentine, who led Michigan State with 20 points against Illinois, has scored in double-figures in five of the last six games. And Trice is starting to thrive in his role as the sixth man, following up his 22 points in the win over Michigan with 18 against Illinois.
"I think we've got our confidence now," Trice said. "Early on this year we would win a couple of games and then lose one we shouldn't, then win a couple of games and lose one we shouldn't. Right now it feels like we're playing well and we're finding ways to win."
And despite the inconsistent play of Trice and Valentine at times this season, what hasn't failed the Spartans are the staples of the program — defense and rebounding.
Michigan State (19-8, 10-4 Big Ten) leads the conference in field-goal percentage defense (38.4), 3-point field-goal defense (29.7) and rebounding margin (+8.2) while ranking second in scoring defense, allowing 61.1 points a game.
"We're a lot better rebounding team and a lot, lot better defensive team than I expected," Izzo said on the Big Ten teleconference Monday. "My staff has done a great job of scouting so we're more of a team defense than an individual one and the second reason is Branden Dawson has been unbelievable in both. He's been a shot blocker, he's been a defender and he's been an incredible rebounder. He has taken his game up two levels from last year and he is the big reason we have improved in those areas."
Dawson has been the one player who has been doing it nearly all season. He leads the Big Ten in rebounding at 10 a game and has eight double-doubles in conference play.
But the senior senses a different team around him over the last few weeks.
"It's our discipline and just taking care of what our responsibility is," Dawson said. "A lot of guys are playing their role and not trying to do something they're not capable of doing. We're listening to coach, no one is arguing and the leadership is really good."
It will continue to be tough for Michigan State down the stretch, beginning with a home game Thursday against Minnesota before heading to first-place Wisconsin on Sunday. After that, the Spartans close at home against Purdue and at Indiana before the Big Ten tournament.
And even with the current streak, Izzo and the Spartans aren't ready to sit back and relax.
"I think we're playing good be we've got way more work to do," Valentine said. "We're second in the Big Ten and we want to finish in the top four. If we can't win the Big Ten we want to finish in that top four, so there is a lot of work to do."