Spartans hit stretch run knowing they can't take any win for granted in Big Ten

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Tom Izzo took his team's loss to Purdue in stride: "I thought we played pretty well at Purdue for most of that game. That is a good team we lost to."

East Lansing — Things can change quickly in the Big Ten.

The last couple of days — Tuesday, in particular — have provided clear evidence that there are no guarantees in arguably the toughest conference, top to bottom, in the country.

For Michigan State, that means a quick turnaround from its three-game slide has the Spartans right back in the thick of the conference race, tied for first place with Michigan as Purdue sits a half-game back.

“Yeah, anything can happen,” Michigan State guard Cassius Winston said. “As long as you’re in that race you feel like you’ve got a chance. The Big Ten is really good, top to bottom, so anything can happen any night.”

What happened on Tuesday couldn’t have worked out much better for the Spartans (20-5, 11-3 Big Ten). Their win at Wisconsin was impressive all by itself, one of Michigan State’s most complete games of the season at a place that is never easy to walk out of with a victory.

But add that Purdue went on the road earlier in the night and got beat by Maryland followed by Michigan’s upset loss on the road a couple hours later at Penn State, and all three had the same number of conference defeats — three — with Maryland a game back and Wisconsin two.

With six games left for Michigan State and Michigan and seven for Purdue, the race will be tight, something most expected even after the Spartans and Wolverines got off to such quick starts that some were talking about one or the other only losing once if not going undefeated.

“There was a young coach, or an old one now, that told you guys a long time ago that I thought four or five losses would win the league,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I don’t think anybody is appreciating two things — how good the league is top to bottom and how hard it is to play 20 games and stay focused at a high level each and every game. I said it early, said it before we even started playing, that it’s such a difficult task, the two more conference games. It’s like four good non-conference games and a lot of coaches, I think, would agree.

“It is crazy what happened (around college basketball). Duke almost gets beat, Kentucky gets beat at home. It’s the time of year, mid-February is the dog days a little bit and hopefully we had some of ours and we woke up from it.”

Waking up from the slump has been vital for No. 11 Michigan State. For the better part of January, the Spartans looked almost unbeatable, winning seven straight without guard Joshua Langford. The run ended at Purdue against a ranked Boilermakers team that was on a roll. It was the third game in six days for Michigan State and even though it got behind by 23, a late rally almost led to a victory.

But the loss itself was hardly one to lose sleep over. It was the loss at home to Indiana the following weekend followed by a loss at Illinois that had some wondering what went wrong. The Spartans couldn’t make a free throw in the Indiana loss and turned the ball over 24 times at Illinois.

By the time they faced Minnesota last weekend, a few days of tough practices and the presence of Magic Johnson and the 1979 championship game helped turn things around. The win at Wisconsin was simply an extension of that re-energized play.

“I thought we played pretty well at Purdue for most of that game,” Izzo said. “That is a good team we lost to. The next two games I think taught us if we’re not ready to play and we’re not ready to do the things we do to be successful, which is defend, rebound and run, make free throws, all the little things you talk about.

“Sometimes I hope it isn’t to the point where we need our eyes opened, but I think for some reason we had our eyes opened. So it was frustrating when it happened, but we used it as a learning thing and I think our team has learned a lot.”

While the Spartans have learned to be more consistent on the court, they’ve also come to understand they can’t let a bad game or two snowball. They did that with the win over Minnesota and will be challenged to do the same Sunday when they host Ohio State.

After that it’s a home game with Rutgers before heading to Michigan on Feb. 24 for what could be a battle for first place. A trip to Indiana comes after that followed by a home game with Nebraska and the regular-season finale at home against the Wolverines.

What the record looks like by then is tough to predict, but the Spartans understand it won’t be a simple path.

“We were talking earlier in season how many (losses) might win the Big Ten this year and I think a lot of people said three, four, five,” Michigan State’s Kenny Goins said. “It’s just an every-year thing, but this year in particular it’s really, really tough top to bottom, so any night it doesn’t matter, you can get a win and it showed the other night with two teams upset.

“You just got to try to take care of your business and it all will play out in the end.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau