Izzo: ‘We’re good enough’ to be in NCAA Tournament

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

More often than not over the previous 19 seasons, Tom Izzo was never in the position where he felt he had to start making a case for his team to be included in the NCAA Tournament.

Following Saturday’s 63-60 loss at Maryland, Izzo didn’t feel any more at ease at stumping when asked if he believes his team deserves a spot, regardless of what happens at next week’s Big Ten tournament.

“I really don’t care and I say that about as honestly as I can,” Izzo said. “I’ve heard nothing about our schedule that we’ve played. We’ve played three No. 1 teams and if I go into that I’m looking to plead. We’re 10-8 and …”

Izzo shifted his tune from there, wondering why the Big Ten is looked at in a negative light this season. He wondered why Virginia loses a game and it’s because the ACC is good when that doesn’t seem to be the case in the Big Ten.

“You think it’s easy to go on the road in this conference and win anywhere?” Izzo wondered. “Maybe Penn State is the one place that doesn’t sell out and we played them in the Palestra. Shows how frickin’ dumb I am.

“Our resume … did we beat any of those teams? No. But we played three No. 1 teams and Arizona. You know what, I don’t lose sleep over a streak. What I lose sleep over is losing a game I thought our kids played their hearts out. We’re a good enough team to be in that tournament in my opinion, but I’m prejudiced. And whatever they think is what they do. No politicking for that.”

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Those teams Izzo is referring to are Baylor, Kentucky and Duke — not all No. 1 teams, but when added with the season-opening loss at the buzzer to Arizona, it’s a run of top teams that Michigan State came up short against. Replace a couple of those with a mid-major teams and Michigan State (18-13, 10-8 Big Ten) likely isn’t wondering if it needs another win in the conference tournament.

However, that’s the way Izzo plays it and that’s not likely to change. He believes the tougher schedule — one ranked the ninth-toughest in the country as of Sunday — gets his team ready for March, the time Michigan State teams typically take off.

And that, more than anything else, is what has Izzo optimistic, believing his young team is close to breaking out even after two straight losses to close the regular season.

“What I really like most about this team is that I threw the white elephant out at Nebraska seven or eight games ago,” Izzo said. “I said, ‘We’ve got to win some games or we’re not gonna make the tournament.’ They responded and that’s what you want out of a team. They responded and that’s what you ask of a team. Can they respond, pull themselves up by the boot straps and do the job you gotta do? For that I feel very good about my team.”

It resulted six wins in the final 10 games, but aside from a frustrating performance in the loss at Illinois, it also produced better effort, more production from the rapidly improving freshman class of Miles Bridges, Nick Ward, Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford, as well as some timely performances from some role players.

It’s built the confidence of a team that looked far different a few weeks back.

“You definitely can build on it,” Winston said. “We played hard and for the most part made good decisions that win games against top teams. We play like that every game, we’ll be all right.”

And that’s been the final step for the Spartans — stringing together more than two good games consecutively. As Winston pointed out, it’s little things that led to the recent losses — a missed shot here, an errant pass there that resulted in matching three-point losses on the road.

The players believe that’s still possible, so does the coach. The margin for error is gone. The Big Ten tournament starts this week in Washington — MSU is the No. 5 seed — and then it’s the NCAA Tournament. Michigan State feels it belongs, something most metrics agree with .

Once there, however, the question is how long do the Spartans last.

“We get into any tournament we’re gonna be a hard out,” Izzo said. “Whether we’re good enough to sustain some things over a period of time … we better not win a game because these guys are that close from taking another giant step. That’s what I’m gonna try and do.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

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Big Ten tournament

At Verizon Center, Washington

Wednesday

No. 12 Nebraska vs. No. 13 Penn State, 4:30 p.m., ESPN2

No. 11 Ohio State vs. No. 14 Rutgers, 7 p.m., BTN

Thursday

No. 8 Michigan vs. No. 9 Illinois, noon, BTN

No. 5 Michigan State vs. 12-13 winner, 2:30 p.m., BTN

No. 7 Iowa vs. No. 10 Indiana, 6:30 p.m., ESPN2

No. 6 Northwestern vs. 11-14 winner, 9 p.m., ESPN2

Friday

No. 1 Purdue vs. Michigan-Illinois winner, noon, ESPN

No. 4 Minnesota vs. 5-12/13 winner, 2:30 p.m., ESPN

No. 2 Wisconsin vs. 7-10 winner, 6:30 p.m., BTN

No. 3 Maryland vs. 6-11/14 winner, BTN

Saturday

Semifinals, 1 and 3:30 p.m., CBS

Sunday

Championship, 3 p.m., CBS