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Spartans have crucial opportunities ahead

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Nobody understands the position Michigan State is in better than Michigan State.

With just five games remaining in the regular season, there aren’t exactly a bunch of impressive wins on the Spartans resume. At 16-10 overall and 8-5 in the Big Ten, Michigan State is still flirting with the NCAA Tournament bubble, though if the season ended today it’s likely Tom Izzo would have his team in for the 20th straight season.

How much that’s on the mind of the Spartans when they take on Purdue at 4 p.m. Saturday at Mackey Arena is up for debate. Izzo brought it up a couple weeks ago when Michigan State finally ended its road issues with a victory at Nebraska. However, tournament status is not on his agenda this weekend.

“At Nebraska I let the white elephant out of the bag and talked about it there,” Izzo said. “That ain’t gonna happen again. They know now what we have to accomplish. We talked about beating Purdue because they are the only team that beat us here in the conference and they’ve got a good team.”

But that doesn’t mean the tournament is completely off the table. There are several opportunities for Michigan State to add that marquee win, the one that bolsters the resume and makes the likelihood of missing out on the tournament a non-issue.

The first opportunity — and maybe the most difficult — comes at 4 p.m. today when Michigan State takes on Purdue at Mackey Arena.

“At this point in the season, really every game is a big game,” sophomore Kenny Goins said. “We’ve been saying that for a couple games now. We put ourselves in the position where we really have got to focus in on every single game. It doesn’t matter who we are playing, but having to beat Purdue away, I don’t know.

“I know they’re making a pretty big deal of it there and they did last year, too. This is a real key victory we need, not just for Big Ten play, this is bigger picture than that. This is March Madness and it’s down to the end of the season and we’ve really got to get a couple more of those big wins and build our resume at this point.”

That will be no easy task. The Boilermakers are tied at the top of the Big Ten standings and already have an 84-73 victory over Michigan State in East Lansing.

And there’s the minor detail of the play of sophomore Caleb Swanigan, who had 25 points and 17 rebounds in the last meeting and has recorded 22 double-doubles this season. It’s a matchup that has given the Spartans trouble as Goins and freshman Nick Ward struggled in the first meeting.

“He’s a pro,” Michigan State freshman Miles Bridges said. “We have to play him straight up, box him out every play and that’s all we can do.”

Izzo and the Spartans also hope they get a similar performance from Bridges, who scored 33 in the last meeting. It’s something that concerns the Boilermakers.

“He just got away from us,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “He’s a good shooter and we gave him too many looks. The guy can catch the ball and make plays on his own. He can post it, he can drive it. Sometimes good players are gonna score, you just want to make him earn it. We have to make it hard on him.”

The key for Michigan State, aside from containing Swanigan without letting the Big Ten’s top 3-point shooting team get hot, is finding contributions from other players. Alvin Ellis had 18 points in the win over Ohio State and getting more from him and fellow senior Eron Harris, along with freshmen Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford, could be the difference.

Their contributions are a reason Michigan State has won four of five and is playing better, overall, than it has at any point this season. However, Izzo knows getting it from all of them could take his team to another level.

“There’s gonna come a time when (Matt) McQuaid and Eron and Alvin hit some shots at the same time,” Izzo said. “Miles is playing better, we’re getting a little more out of Nick. Cassius is getting better. Guys are getting better. Can we get more than a couple playing good at the same time, which every team needs to do if you want to be really good? That has a great possibility of happening. I don’t know when but when it does we can go from a pretty good team to maybe a real good team?”

Which makes Saturday’s matchup all the more important and the chance at a big win even more of an attainable goal.

“This is a really big game for us and if we beat them that would be really big for us,” Bridges said. “We just want to come out with a lot of energy, come out focused and do our best defensively.”

MSU TOURNAMENT OUTLOOK

Remaining games:

Saturday at Purdue (RPI: 19)

Thursday vs. Nebraska (83)

Feb. 26 vs. Wisconsin (26)

March 1 at Illinois (70)

March 4/5 at Maryland (17)

Resume:

Best win: at Minnesota (23)

Worst loss: vs. Northeastern (139)

Michigan State at No. 16 Purdue

Tip-off: Saturday, 4 p.m., Mackey Arena, West Lafayette, Ind.

TV/radio: ESPN/WJR 760

Records: Michigan State 16-10, 8-5 Big Ten; Purdue 21-5, 10-3

Outlook: Michigan State has won eight of the last 10 in the series and three of that last four at Mackey Arena. Before last season’s overtime loss at Purdue, MSU had won three straight on the road and seven in a row overall. … The Boilermakers have the highest scoring offense in the Big Ten, averaging 81.3 points per game, while allowing just 66.2 per game. Purdue also leads the Big Ten in field goal percentage (.483), 3-point field goal percentage (.413), assists (18.8) and rebounding margin (+8.6).