MSU hopes to find road legs in second half of Big Ten season

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Michigan State righted its ship on Friday night. The next step is carrying that through the second half of the Big Ten season.

The 85-57 victory over Indiana was a much-needed one after No. 9 Michigan State had lost two of three and its confidence was waning. However, that win came at Breslin Center. The Spartans hit the road Monday to take on Illinois, and will play seven of their last 11 on the road.

It’s life in the Big Ten this season as the new television deal added Monday and Friday games while everything has been compacted with the conference tournament a week earlier than usual. It’s created some tough trips for teams and Michigan State hasn’t exactly impressed in its two Big Ten road games, beating Rutgers by 10 and losing by 16 at Ohio State.

Will that linger down the stretch?

“I don’t know, I’m going to find out Monday night,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “A lot of other people haven’t been doing so good on the road, either. It’s not like this is a Michigan State thing. This is a problem. Plus, our schedule. You’ve never seen anything like that have you? Where seven of the last 11 are on the road? Our job is to get better every day so we can handle the road.”

An optimistic look at the road ahead shows the Spartans (17-3, 5-2 Big Ten) should be equipped to handle it. They’re the top field-goal percentage team in the nation and are third in rebounding margin.

Those are things that should remain consistent at home and on the road.

“What I liked about tonight; they shot 33 percent, 30 from the 3. We outrebounded by 18,” Izzo said after Friday’s victory. “That’s all travel-worthy. That goes everywhere. I’m going to try my hardest to keep pushing that to these guys morning, noon and night because when we’re moving the ball and we’re running it’s a fun team to watch.”

The offense hit a lull in the three-game stretch that resulted in two losses, and that was the focus on Friday against Indiana. It wasn’t perfect. Izzo wants more ball movement. But the turnovers were down a bit (13) and the fast break showed more life while center Nick Ward was effective in the post.

But it’s that defense that will be key.

“We have defended 99 percent of the games,” Izzo said. “Maybe Ohio State shot 52 percent. I don’t know if anybody else shot over 43. We did more good than bad.”

Actually, Notre Dame shot 44.4 percent, but Michigan State won that game by 18 points. So yes, the defense has been good on most nights, and if the ball-screen defense continues to improve and the offense remains consistent, the Spartans could make a final push to win the Big Ten title.

The first step to that is getting it done on the road.

“We know road games are tough, especially in the Big Ten,” sophomore Miles Bridges said. “We just got to stay on alert. Nebraska just beat Michigan and Illinois is a good, scrappy team, so we’ve just got to stay ready.”

Izzo believes the Spartans weren’t ready when they rose to the No. 1 ranking in the nation just before their trip to Ohio State that began the poor stretch.

“I just don’t think we handled the start,” Izzo said. “When you say that, you can be two ways. You can be cocky and arrogant and a jerk. Or you can just be immature and not realizing that everybody’s shooting for you and there’s pressure on you and everybody’s talking about you.

“We’ve had some talks with our kids about that. We’ve had some talks with our kids about social media and all the noise that’s out there. We’ve really grown as a team, we’ve really grown together and I kind of like that.”

Izzo likes it because he believes his team is turning the corner. He understands the ups and downs of a season and it’s amplified with a young team.

That’s not an excuse, it’s reality. But he has a good team, one he believes will be better off for what it has gone through.

“I don’t like what went on last week,” Izzo said. “I don’t like how people jumped in and out of the bandwagon. Whoever does, jump out, you’re gonna miss out. Whoever jumps in and stays in, I think you’re in for a pretty good ride.

“What did we go through? We lost two games to ranked teams. What you learn is, you learn a little bit about your team. (I hear) words of soft, words of this and that. I think, in all honesty, (it’s) words of youth, words of inexperience, words of not knowing how to handle things that are thrown at you.”