MSU head coach Tom Izzo talks about the Spartans' No. 1 national ranking. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — Michigan State has just about everything a team would want when its goal is to win a national championship.
The Spartans have high-end talent at nearly every spot on the floor, plenty of depth, a dash of veteran leadership on a young roster, and a coach who happens to be in the Hall of Fame.
What they don’t have is a team that understands the pressure that comes with being ranked No. 1 in the nation, a spot the Spartans ascended to this week.
Well, not completely, anyway.
See, that dash of leadership comes mostly from senior guard Tum Tum Nairn. He’s no longer a starter, but his value to the team is unquestioned. It’s seen in huddles during games, and it becomes especially obvious when Michigan State is on the practice floor.
Nairn is their heart and soul, and he happens to be one of two players on the roster who have been in this spot before. He and fifth-year senior forward Gavin Schilling both were key members of the rotation in the 2015-16 season, the last time Michigan State was ranked No. 1.
That run lasted four weeks, and Nairn already has been reminding his young teammates about how things are going to get ramped up as No. 1 Michigan State gets set to jump back into Big Ten play on Thursday when it hosts Maryland.
“Most of these guys have never been ranked No. 1 in college, and most of our players, especially our best players, are sophomores,” Nairn said after practice Tuesday. “So, in every situation like this, the biggest thing is to keep your edge and remember who you are and just continue to play like you’re nobody. This will continue to help us be on the quest for being our best every day.”
During Nairn’s sophomore year, the Spartans took everyone’s best. As the top-ranked team that season, they got pushed by an unranked Florida team then went to overtime at The Palace against Oakland. They eventually lost at Iowa and dropped to No. 12 before working back to No. 2 by the time the NCAA Tournament started.
That team, of course, had seniors all over the court with Denzel Valentine, Bryn Forbes and Matt Costello in control. This one, not so much. As Nairn said, the sophomores carry the team with Miles Bridges, Nick Ward, Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford having big seasons. Add in freshman Jaren Jackson Jr., and the Spartans still aren’t exactly grizzled veterans.
“We haven’t been here with a team this young before,” Izzo said. “That was one of the statements I made to my guys this morning. ‘Miles, you think you’ve done a lot because you could have gone pro. You’ve never been in this situation. You’ve never had chance play for Big Ten championship last year, really. You’ve never been ranked No. 1.’
“There are advantages, but you realize somebody is putting a bull’s-eye on your back. … How you practice is usually how you play. They didn’t look like they were all full of themselves today, and I’d be shocked if this team is, but it’s handling the pressure other teams put on. It just makes me be more of a jerk. I relish the opportunity.”
Michigan State sophomores Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford talk about the work that remains to keep their No. 1 national ranking. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
The Spartans (14-1, 2-0 Big Ten) have been hovering near the top of the rankings all season. They opened No. 2 and in the second game of the season they took on No. 1 Duke in the Champions Classic. That game proved to be a classic, as it was tied in the final four minutes before Duke pulled out the 88-81 win.
Michigan State never dropped lower than No. 4, and since falling to Duke, it hasn’t lost. Along the way the Spartans won the PK80 Invitational while blowing out North Carolina and Notre Dame when both teams were ranked in the top 10. Over the past two weeks, they’ve beat up on the lower end of the schedule with conference play set to begin again.
“I think we’ve played against good enough people,” Izzo said. “These last four games made it a little crazy. It’s always what you do for me today, and so I think we get hurt where other teams played some of those teams early and we happen to play them late because of our schedule.
“But as you know, it means nothing right now. I just think it’s good for our program, for our university and I think it’s good for our players to understand the pressure they’re gonna be under went from high to enormous and they’ve got to be able to handle it.”
They’re not only ready to handle it, they’re eager to take on whatever comes next.
“This is what we signed up for,” Winston said. “We wanted everybody’s best shot. We want to play the best. That’s why we came here. You want to be the best, you have to play the best. Everyone will come out and give us their best shot and we have to be ready for it.”