East Lansing — Now that running the table in the Big Ten is no longer a possibility, Michigan State is ready to get back to the business of chasing a conference championship.
OK, having a perfect conference record was never a realistic option. In fact, no Big Ten team has gone unbeaten since Indiana was 18-0 in 1975-76, so doing so again this season was a bit of a stretch, even for a Michigan State team that was ranked No. 1 in the nation and had won 14 straight before falling Sunday at Ohio State.
It was something that has Tom Izzo shaking his head.
“I had people saying, ‘Are you gonna run the table?’ ” the Michigan State coach said. “I mean, are you kidding me? Are you really that screwed up that you think we’re just some powerhouse that can do all that?’ We’re a very good team, and there are a lot of very good teams out there. I never, in my wildest dreams, was that a goal. There’s a reason it hasn’t been done since what, 1976. There’s a reason. It’s not a goal because it’s more unrealistic today than it ever was.”
One reason it’s as difficult as it ever is the fact that, even in what is arguably a down season for the Big Ten, there are few easy nights.
With Rutgers visiting the Breslin Center on Wednesday night, it’s another example of that. The Scarlet Knights (11-6, 1-3 Big Ten) have been all over the map this season, beating then-No. 15 Seton Hall then losing to Stony Brook and Hartford.
Back in early December, Rutgers pushed Michigan State to the limit in Piscataway before the Spartans emerged with a 10-point victory.
It’s something that the No. 4 Spartans are cognizant of after 15 ranked teams lost last week, many of them to unranked conference opponents.
“I was asked after the game (on Sunday), is this the norm for the country right now?” Izzo said. “There have been a lot of bizarre things happening, as evidenced by the 15 ranked teams that lost.
“I say it’s kind of the new normal because of all the young guys on the teams. A lot of the teams that aren’t quite ranked as high are usually teams that have more of the four- and five-year seniors. That’s the way it seems these days. So, I think that’s gonna become more of the new normal, with those things happening. It’s no excuse, but just a fact.”
Whether Rutgers can be the latest team to pull off an upset not many saw coming remains to be seen. After losing three straight, the Scarlet Knights beat Wisconsin last week to end the skid.
However, they understand they’ll likely get a better effort from the Spartans this time than they did back in early December when Michigan State shot a season-low 38.6 percent.
“This program is going to be good and they have to stay the course,” Rutgers coach Steve Pikiell said after the Wisconsin victory. “Today was a good win. We’ll get ready. We have a difficult task at Michigan State, who’s a good team, and we will be well prepared and go there and play.”
Michigan State (15-2, 3-1) is coming off arguably its poorest performance of the season in the loss to Ohio State.
The Buckeyes shot 52.5 percent, the best of any opponent this season, and the Spartans’ offense bogged down with little ball movement. Miles Bridges scored 17 but was just 7-for-19 shooting and Nick Ward was limited to just one shot.
“I feel like we’ll learn from (the loss) and a lot of times you have to go through certain times and get brought down so you can build back up,” said Joshua Langford, who scored 17 against Ohio State. “The best way to get better is to be able to self-evaluate and that’s what we all did from this game. I feel like everybody has a better understanding and we’re all on the same page.”
Rutgers at No. 4 Michigan State
Tip-off: 7 p.m. Wednesday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
TV/radio: Big Ten Network/WJR 760
Records: Rutgers 11-6, 1-3 Big Ten; Michigan State 15-2, 3-1
Outlook: This is the fourth time Rutgers has faced a ranked team in its first five conference games this season. … Michigan State entered Tuesday night leading the nation in assists per game (21.8), blocks (8), field-goal percentage (52.5), field-goal percentage defense (34.2), rebound margin (12.8) and scoring margin (24.1). … Michigan State has won all six meetings with Rutgers.