Michigan State gearing up for tournament mind-set
East Lansing — With plenty still at stake in the final couple weeks of the regular season, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo is already getting his team in tournament mode.
A Big Ten regular season championship isn’t mathematically lost, but it will take some help from teams at the top losing with just four games to play.
What Izzo is more focused on with the postseason looming is having his team in the right mind-set, something he feels much better about following Thursday’s 69-57 victory over Wisconsin at Breslin Center.
“That was a big thing to me right now,” Izzo said. “When you get near tournament time, any kind of tournament, the ‘my bads’ and one mistakes that you could accept during the year become much more critical. And that is the only reason I wasn’t as pleased as I probably should be winning a game like that because we had a couple of those things happen.”
There weren’t many for No. 8 Michigan State, which got 24 points and 10 assists from Denzel Valentine and turned in one of its better defensive performances of the season, holding Wisconsin’s leading scorer, Nigel Hayes, to five points on 1-for-13 shooting.
It was the sort of game that will serve the Spartans well as they push to finish in the top four in the Big Ten to earn a bye into the quarterfinals of the conference tournament and work for a high seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Being in a tournament state of mind before those tournaments arrive is key, and Michigan State appears to be peaking at the right time, a three-game losing streak a distant memory.
“I think everybody has got to learn by their own mistakes,” Izzo said. “If you learn by your own mistakes before they become so critical that they send you home, that’s a good thing. I think that is what I try to do at the end of the year. You get down to these last four or five games – how can we start getting a little bit more consistent? How can we have fewer my-bads and more my-goods?
“If that is a tournament state of mind I’d say you’re right on the money.”
For an experienced team like Michigan State, it’s not that hard to emphasize how vital the final few weeks of the season can be. With seniors Valentine, Matt Costello and Bryn Forbes leading the way, there is plenty of leadership.
Considering that most of the rotation played on last season’s Final Four team, Izzo should feel confident. But the Spartans do rely on a couple of freshmen — Deyonta Davis and Matt McQuaid — and they’re figuring it out as they go.
It’s something Izzo has tried to emphasize with his first-year players.
“The way I explain the tournament state of mind is when DD comes over says, ‘OK, I’ll do it right next time,’” Izzo said. “Then I explain to him, in the tournament you don’t get the ‘next times.’ That’s the advantage of the Big Ten tournament, even though there’s been times I’m not in love with it, but it does teach you that one mistake, you’re out.”
Valentine has been named one of 10 finalists for the 2015-16 Senior CLASS Award. To be eligible for the award, student-athletes must be classified as NCAA Division I seniors and have notable achievements in four areas of excellence: community, classroom, character and competition.
Valentine entered Thursday’s game leading the Big Ten in scoring (19.5 ppg), assists (7.7 apg) and 3-point field goals made (3.5 pg), while ranking third in free-throw percentage (.846) and tied for third in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.8). He has recorded two triple-doubles in addition to five double-doubles this season, and is on pace to become the first player since at least 1996-97 to average 17 points, seven rebounds and six assists in a single season.
Other finalists include Ryan Arcidiacono (Villanova), Malcolm Brogdon (Virginia), Perry Ellis (Kansas), Buddy Hield (Oklahoma), Georges Niang (Iowa State), Marcus Paige (North Carolina), Justin Sears (Yale), Fred VanVleet (Wichita State), and Kyle Wiltjer (Gonzaga).
Wisconsin had won four of the last five meetings with Michigan State entering Thursday’s game. It was the first visit to the Breslin Center for the Badgers since 2013 when the Spartans won, 58-43.
In the last five meetings, three were played in Madison, Wis., while two were neutral-site games in the Big Ten tournament, including last season’s championship game in Chicago.