Michigan State tries to keep even keel with Big Ten destiny in its hands
East Lansing — With less than two weeks to play in the regular season, Michigan State finds itself in the exact position it hopes to be every season — playing with a chance to win a championship.
In first place in the Big Ten by a half-game over Purdue and a full game over Michigan following Sunday’s victory over the Wolverines, the Spartans are not only in position, but aren’t relying anyone else to help them out.
The path is simple: Win the final three games, and No. 6 Michigan State will repeat as Big Ten regular-season champion. It would be the eighth under coach Tom Izzo and the first time the Spartans won at least a share in back-to-back seasons since 2010.
That path begins with a trip Saturday to Indiana, followed by a home game with Nebraska next Tuesday and finally the rematch with Michigan at the Breslin Center on March 9.
“We've got three games left and we are mathematically in a position where destiny is in our own hands,” Izzo said Tuesday. “That doesn't happen very often. I don't need any help anymore from anybody.
“There hasn’t been a lot of years where everything was totally in our hands at this time of year. There have been some, but it seems like you need help from somebody. I look at this as we don’t need any help, we just have to take care of our own business.”
Michigan State (23-5, 14-3 Big Ten) is in its position because of its victory over Michigan in Ann Arbor on Sunday, and it holds most tie-breaker scenarios with a Purdue team the Spartans beat at home but lost to on the road.
It was that victory over their rival, though, that has the Spartans flying high. It ended a three-game skid against the Wolverines and came with both Nick Ward and Joshua Langford out with injuries. Throw in the play of guard Cassius Winston, who likely locked up Big Ten Player of the Year honors, and there is plenty of Michigan State love out there.
It’s that praise Izzo hopes his players tune out as they get set to head to Indiana for a noon tip-off on Saturday.
“I fear it every day,” Izzo said. “Whether you read about it, write about it or see it on Twitter, I think we blow it off sometimes on how it would affect somebody, positively or negatively. I don’t read the stuff we’re talking about, so I don’t know, but I do know what I think my players read and it’s always a worry now. It’s a worry both ways. You win you worry, you lose you worry, because there is no happy medium.”
It likely helps the Spartans that the next time they take the court it will be against the Hoosiers, who came to East Lansing and pulled off an upset in overtime on Feb. 2. Entering Tuesday night’s game against Wisconsin, it is Indiana’s only victory in 13 games.
That, alone, should be motivation enough for Michigan State to remain dialed in, but as Izzo pointed out there is no room for the Spartans to start getting comfortable. Langford is done for the season and Ward likely won’t be back until after the regular season concludes.
“Still, our margin for error is very slim,” Izzo said. “You hear people on TV talk about, kinda like they were talking about us playing better without Josh. I’d give my right arm to have Josh back. ‘Well, you guys are playing better without Nick.’ I’d give my right arm to have Nick back.
“I think both guys did hell of a job last week for us, and there are so many different reasons why we need different players and whenever you have a little bit of success or a little bit of failure we’re pretty good at blaming the failure and not appreciating enough of the success. Getting Nick back will be important to us when he gets back.”
Until then, Michigan State works with what it has. That likely will include junior Kyle Ahrens, whose bad back had him running the tunnel at Michigan to stay loose, forcing Izzo to “call Kyle out of the bullpen.”
Ahrens is “day-to-day” Izzo said, a designation he’ll almost certainly carry the rest of the season.
Even the uncertain roster, Michigan State has put itself in this position, one Izzo shoots for every season. Saturday at Indiana will be the next chance to capitalize on that position, regardless of who takes the floor.
“When Nick went down, it was not a lot of good days in office as far as figuring out what to do,” Izzo said. “But we Band-aided some things together. Sometimes those don’t always last forever, but if we can hold on we’re gonna go down and try and win another game and take it one at a time.”