East Lansing — History says Michigan State is fighting long odds in getting back into the Big Ten race.
The Spartans have already lost four games in conference, and with 10 left to play, starting tonight at Northwestern, the margin for error is razor thin. In fact, it might not even exist.
But that doesn’t mean No. 12 Michigan State is approaching the stretch drive of this season any differently.
“We can still win it, but if not we want to get the best place in the Big Ten tournament,” senior Denzel Valentine said. “So our approach every game is the same.”
In the last five seasons, the Big Ten champion has had more than four losses only once. That came in 2012 when Michigan State, Michigan and Ohio State shared the championship at 13-5. Indiana won in 2013 with a 14-4 mark.
Michigan State would have to go on quite a run to reach those marks, and it also doesn’t help that Iowa remains unbeaten, the only team left with an unblemished record after Indiana lost at Wisconsin on Tuesday. The Spartans lost both meetings with the Hawkeyes.
What helps is the fact Michigan State (17-4, 4-4 Big Ten) still plays four of the five teams in front of it — including two against Ohio State — and it already beat the fifth team, Maryland.
That, along with Saturday’s victory over the Terrapins that was the best effort the Spartans have had in weeks, combine to give them plenty of confidence headed into an important week that is capped off with a visit from Rutgers on Sunday.
It even had Michigan State bringing back something it hadn’t used in recent weeks — breaking huddles at practice by saying, “Natty,” a reference to its goal of winning a national championship. It’s something that feels like it’s back on the table after last weekend’s performance.
“We had to get a win, that was that,” Valentine said. “Once we got a win we could start talking about ‘Natty’ again.”
That goal is still well down the road. For now, the Spartans have their focus on getting a road win over a team that has lost three straight.
Northwestern was 12-1 entering Big Ten play and won its opener against Nebraska. Since then, however, the Wildcats (15-6, 3-5) have won only twice but did take Maryland to the limit before losing in overtime.
“They are kind of like we were last week,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “They have their backs to the wall. They started out so good, now they’ve lost three in a row.”
The Wildcats got outstanding backcourt play in the nonconference portion of the season. Since then, however, things have gone in the wrong direction for guards Bryant McIntosh and Tre Demps.
McIntosh is shooting just 19.4 percent (6-for-31) from 3-point range in Big Ten play while Demps is at 22.4 percent (11-for-49). On top of that, big man Alex Olah missed the first five games of conference play and is still working his way back into shape.
“Teams are trying to get the ball out of Bryant and Tre’s hands,” Northwestern coach Chris Collins said. “They’re double-teaming them at every opportunity. They’re trying to make them pass it to other guys. Our complementary guys, we’ve got to find offense for them. We’ve got to find ways for them to lessen the load on Bryant and Tre. It’s no secret. Every team’s trying to take those two kids out of the game.”
If Michigan State does the same tonight, it will be feeling even better about what lies ahead.
However, the Spartans also understand they need to put the big win over Maryland in the past.
“We’re still hungry,” Valentine said. “We might be feeling good about ourselves, but if we go out there Thursday and lose it’s back to, ‘Michigan State just gets up for one game.’ We don’t want to be that team. We want to keep moving forward. We think we can go from now to the end of the season without any losses. That’s the goal and we’ll keep trying to do that every day.”
A little help from the rest of the Big Ten wouldn’t hurt, either.
“The Big Ten is a crazy league,” senior Matt Costello said. “People win and lose all the time, so we’ve just got to take care of our business and win as many games as we can and see what happens down the stretch.”
No. 12 Michigan State
Tip-off: 9 p.m. Thursday, Welsh-Ryan Arena, Evanston, Ill.
TV/radio: ESPN/WJR 760
Records: Michigan State 17-4, 4-4 Big Ten; Northwestern 15-6, 3-5
Notable: A victory would give Michigan State’s Tom Izzo 513 for his career, surpassing Purdue’s Gene Keady for second most at a Big Ten school. Bob Knight won 661 games at Indiana. Izzo is third all-time with 237 Big Ten victories, trailing Knight (353) and Keady (265). … Michigan State has won six straight over Northwestern, including two straight in Evanston.