Izzo: MSU will figure out way to NCAAs; ’Huskers first

Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News

East Lansing — Some way or another, Tom Izzo expects Michigan State to be playing in the NCAA Tournament in a few weeks.

And why shouldn’t he? Michigan State has reached the tournament 19 straight times, a number bested only by Kansas (27) and Duke (21) in terms of longest active streaks for reaching the NCAA Tournament. In fact, the 19-year streak is the fifth-longest ever in college basketball.

But with just four games left in the regular season, Michigan State (16-11, 8-6) finds itself in a precarious situation, maybe its most precarious in the past 20 years. The Spartans are firmly on the bubble, though there’s plenty of opportunity to change that over the next couple of weeks with games still to be played against Wisconsin and Maryland — two teams near the top of the Big Ten that could provide resume-building wins — as well as the Big Ten tournament.

The prognosticators say Michigan State is in — for now — and Izzo intends to prove them right.

“I just plan on us figuring out a way,” Izzo said. “If I’m talking about it, there’s five other Big Ten teams talking about it, there’s four or five ACC teams, there’s three or four SEC teams. I mean, there are so many teams that are 6-8 to 8-6 around the country that everybody’s in the same boat. I haven’t put that pressure on (the players), don’t plan on putting that pressure on them.”

Before the big games are up, Michigan State needs to take care of the games it must win, beginning at 7 p.m. Thursday when Nebraska visits the Breslin Center. It’s not the sort of game that provides much beyond adding a win to the total, but it would be far more detrimental of Michigan State finds a way to lose to Nebraska at home for the third straight time.

And getting past a Cornhuskers team that has won two straight and has wins over Purdue and Maryland to its credit this season will be no simple task. The Spartans handled the Huskers on the road earlier this month, but they’ll be without Eron Harris while Nebraska has forward Ed Morrow back in the lineup after missing the first meeting.

“He’s a 6-foot-6 junkyard dog,” Izzo said of Morrow. “He’s just a rebounding, athletic, tough junkyard dog. Perfect guy for (Nebraska coach) Tim Miles, how he coaches, he’s the perfect guy. … I think Morrow helps them a lot, he gives us something more to worry about, but at least we match up somewhat in size so that’s a plus.”

How Michigan State makes up for the loss of Harris will be an ongoing issue. Izzo said this week he’s leaning toward starting senior Alvin Ellis, though sophomore Matt McQuaid is also an option while sophomore Kyle Ahrens could see more time and there’s the possibility of the Spartans playing point guards Tum Tum Nairn and Cassius Winston more together.

“I’m just expecting to play a bigger role,” said Ellis, who is averaging 17 minutes played this season and has started twice in 128 career games. “Whatever Coach needs me to do then I’ll try and step up.”

While Izzo admits reaching NCAA Tournament isn’t getting lost, he is pushing his players to think about the task at hand.

“Right now we’re going to focus everything we got on Nebraska,” Izzo said. “I know it’s such a cliché — ‘One game at a time.’ Trust me when I say this, we have no choice but to take it one game at a time. Not worry about the bubble. Not worry about the tournament. Not worry about anything else. Just worry about what we got left, the 10 scholarship players in the room and see if we can make them into a team that can get better here at the end of the year.

“I don’t feel good about where we are, but everybody is going in the same direction. We still have a lot of things to play for.”

A spot in the NCAA Tournament, of course, is what’s left to play for, and the entire program knows it.

“That’s definitely the goal but we don’t look at standings,” Nairn said. “We know how we’ve got to play to get in the tournament. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want to play in the tournament. We’ve been there 19 straight years and with the guys that came before us and the history of this program and doing what no other program has done, we definitely want to get in that tournament. But it’s just one game at time.”

Nebraska at Michigan State

Tip-off: 7 p.m. Thursday, Breslin Center, East Lansing

TV/radio: ESPNU/WJR 760

Records: Nebraska 12-14, 6-8 Big Ten; Michigan State 16-11, 8-6

Outlook: Nebraska has won its last two games at the Breslin Center, including a 72-71 victory last season. … Nebraska’s backcourt features two of the top scorers in the Big Ten, with Tai Webster ranking third in the league at 17.7 points a game and Glynn Watson Jr. tied for 11th with 14 points a game. Webster is the only player in the Big Ten to score in double figures in every game this season.