MSU coach on team improvements as regular season winds down, and on facing Minnesota.


East Lansing — It's been a while since anyone outside Wisconsin has thought about winning the Big Ten regular-season title.

But after a loss at Maryland on Tuesday, a small window has opened.

Just don't expect Michigan State coach Tom Izzo to put any extra attention on taking advantage of what is still a long shot to catch the Badgers.

"With two weeks left in the regular season, there is still a ton left to play for," Izzo said. "I don't look at the crack in the door from Wisconsin vs. Maryland as being anything. I look at the bigger picture of us continuing to play better and getting ready for the Big Ten tournament and playing some of our best basketball at that point."

Heading into tonight's game against Minnesota, Michigan State has won four straight and six of seven. It is bunched in the pack behind Wisconsin, a team it faces on the road Sunday.

But, again, Izzo isn't hammering home the standings with his players.

"I don't even talk or think about it," he said. "I don't want my guys thinking about any crack in any door. I want them thinking about are we going to get better each and every game right now because we are doing that on a fairly consistent basis. It's now can we finish games?"

Michigan State has been consistent in the last month, the only exception being a home loss to Illinois.

The Spartans have been so with Branden Dawson playing as well as anyone in the conference and Denzel Valentine and Travis Trice providing scoring lifts. Trice's emergence the last two games — 22 points against Michigan and 18 against Illinois — has come as he adjusts to life coming off the bench.

"I think we are winning because everybody is doing a better job," Izzo said. "It's our seniors that have definitely stepped up. Trice is definitely stepped up. Valentine has definitely been there and Dawson is becoming the defensive player that will hopefully get the recognition he deserves in the league. Not only is he defending different positions, but his shot blocking has been phenomenal."

But the biggest key might be the play of freshman guard Lourawls Nairn.

He has started four straight games — all victories — and Michigan State is 5-0 in games he has started all season. In his last four games, Nairn is 9-for-15 shooting.

"He has a God-given skill; he can get over a ball screen about as good as anybody I've ever had," Izzo said. "Part of it is because he's small and skinny, but he's small, skinny and strong. Those aren't the normal combinations. Because he's all three, I think he can slither his way through them or he can ram his way through them, but he does get over ball screens well.

"He has a very high basketball IQ. ... He studies enough film that he understands what his opponent does. If he keeps working and stays that same way, he has a change to be one of the best defensive players to play here."

Nairn likely will spend plenty of time tonight guarding Minnesota's Andre Hollins, who is averaging 14.6 points and is second in the Big Ten in made 3-pointers.

And Izzo isn't taking the fact the Golden Gophers have lost three straight as a sign this will be an easy game. In fact, he was quick to point out that not only is Minnesota one of the best defensive teams in the conference, it has been in nearly every game.

"Maybe the scariest stat for me, because I had them pegged as a sleeper along with Iowa, is the number of close games," Izzo said. "Nine (of their) conference games have been decided by six points, seven they lost. That has been the difference."

Minnesota at Michigan State

Tip-off: 7 tonight, Breslin Center, East Lansing

TV/radio: BTN/WJR

Records: Minnesota 16-12 (5-10 Big Ten), Michigan State 19-8 (10-4)

Outlook: Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said freshman Javon Bess likely will have his foot evaluated this week to determine if he can play again this season. ... Michigan State is on a 13-2 run against Minnesota and has won 15 straight at home.