East Lansing — It’s been a while since Michigan State was able to hang a Big Ten championship banner, but it hopes to take the next step toward remedying that Thursday night.
That’s when No. 1 Michigan State gets back into conference play by hosting Maryland at 8 at Breslin Center. The Spartans haven’t won an outright Big Ten championship since 2009 and last shared the title in 2012.
That’s a drought they hope to end after getting a two-game start back in early December with wins over Nebraska and Rutgers.
“It’s huge,” sophomore guard Cassius Winston said of the prospect of winning a Big Ten title. “One of those things on our list is a Big Ten championship and we started off to good start, grew as a team and now it’s time to go after that next thing on the list.”
The good start has included 13 straight victories after falling to Duke in the second game of the season. Along the way, the Spartans (14-1, 2-0 Big Ten) have had impressive wins over North Carolina and Notre Dame when both were ranked in the top 10, got the two early Big Ten victories then spent the last few weeks beating up on lesser competition.
That includes the last four games when Michigan State has scored more than 100 points while continuing to lead the nation on field-goal percentage defense (.328) and blocked shots per game (8.4).
Coach Tom Izzo isn’t discounting what his team has accomplished over the last few weeks, regardless of competition.
"I think we can become a little bit fooled — If we can’t, I think fans can be — of these four games (but) take nothing away from us," Izzo said. "I think when you play good defense and you shoot well, that means you’re playing both ends of the court and I think we earned the right to feel good about that but let’s not lose perspective.
“Some of those teams had an injured player. Some of them we were just better than, but what I’ve liked about this team is -- including (against) Duke -- it’s been pretty consistent. Most of the consistency has been in a good area, our defense or our offense. You know, a little struggle there at 3-point shooting early. The only inconsistency has still been the turnovers, but when you look at both ends of the court we’ve been pretty consistent.”
That consistency has many believing the Big Ten championship is Michigan State’s to lose. It what is considered a down year for the conference, the question seems to be whether any team can challenge the Spartans as opposed to how many.
However, Purdue and Michigan have been playing well while Izzo believes a handful of other teams will keep getting better.
“I think the Michigan State way hurt the Big Ten a little bit because I think more teams are playing tougher schedules,” Izzo said. “We’ve lost a couple that I think we shouldn’t have. Northwestern, I think is gonna be a very good team. They’ve had some injuries … and I still think Iowa is a very good team. Michigan is playing well, Purdue is playing well and Ohio State is playing really well.
“The other team I think is gonna be a lot better and good thing we caught them early is Nebraska. I liked their talent when we played them they just didn’t play together yet and they’ve played pretty well since. … But I think we’ll find out that the league will be really good and there will five or six teams at the top that will be very, very solid.”
Michigan State’s goal is to remain ahead of those teams by the end of February.
“Oh man. Everything. It would mean everything to me,” senior Tum Tum Nairn said of a conference title. “To be able to say we’re the best team in the Big Ten, only great teams can do that. That’s one goal and we’ll continue to strive for it each and every day.”
Maryland comes to East Lansing after playing at home Tuesday night, getting a tough win over Penn State. However, the Terrapins are still adjusting to season-ending injuries to forwards Justin Jackson and Ivan Bender.
That doesn’t mean the Spartans are expecting an easy victory.
“There’s no such thing as an easy conference game,” Winston said. “Every team’s going to give us their best shot. Every team has players that are capable of playing the highest level of basketball, so every game is going to be a challenge.”
MARYLAND AT NO. 1 MICHIGAN STATE
Tip-off: 8 p.m. Thursday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
Records: Maryland 13-3, 2-1 Big Ten; Michigan State 14-1, 2-0
Outlook: The Spartans have won three of the last four in the series. … Senior forward Ben Carter went through his first full practice Tuesday after missing the last two games with an ankle injury.