Michigan State coach Tom Izzo looks ahead to last three regular-season games The Detroit News
Maybe it was an eye-opener, perhaps a smack to the face.
Whatever it’s labeled, Michigan State had that a few weeks ago, over a two-game period. The Spartans had won 13 straight before losing at Purdue on Jan. 27. That game, by itself, was no big deal. The Boilermakers, after all, are tied with Michigan State atop the Big Ten standings and it was the Spartans’ third game in a week.
It was the next two times on the court, however, that proved to be that wake-up call for Michigan State. It began with an overtime loss at home to Indiana and was followed by a loss on the road to Illinois. Since then, the Spartans haven’t lost and now they’ll get a chance to avenge the defeat that highlighted that two-game lull when they head to Bloomington to take on the Hoosiers at noon on Saturday.
Whether the last meeting is on the mind of the Spartans is tough to say. In the first matchup, Indiana had lost seven games in a row before pulling off the upset in East Lansing. The Hoosiers followed that up by losing the next five before outlasting Wisconsin this week in double overtime.
“I never know how guys react to things and I’m tired of guessing how they react,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “But man, if you don’t realize that you’ve got three games left, then if nothing else, that’s all you got left. I think when you lose like we did those two games in row to teams people thought we should beat, when you look at what’s going on out there and when you look at Penn State having Maryland down 100.
“The only way they don’t know is if they’re doing more tweeting than they are doing looking. Anyone looking at anything realizes it’s going on with everybody and I’m not worried about that, either.”
In other words, Izzo is convinced his team has reached the point in the season where they’ll be dialed in no matter who they play, where they play and when.
That’s a good approach considering No. 6 Michigan State (23-5, 14-3 Big Ten) has just three games remaining in the regular season and winning out would lock up at least a share of its second straight conference championship.
It begins at Assembly Hall, where the Spartans have won twice in the last three trips against the Hoosiers (14-14, 5-12). That along with Indiana’s recent woes don’t have the Spartans thinking they can just show up and get their sixth consecutive victory.
“Indiana, they’re tough,” freshman Thomas Kithier said. “They just beat Wisconsin the other night. The lost like five in a row before that, but if you look at Purdue they lost by two and it was in overtime. Their record doesn’t indicate how good of a team they are, so I think it definitely will be a dogfight.
“Obviously, we want revenge. They beat us in our place when College Gameday was here, so it’s definitely a huge game for us.”
Huge, to be sure. It’s huge because Michigan State can’t afford a slip-up in the standings and huge because they are playing far better than they did the last time they faced the Hoosiers, when it made just 8 of 22 free throws, including missing the front end of a one-and-one three times in the second half.
“I think we’re a totally different team,” junior guard Cassius Winston said. “We play much harder, we defend better, we’re rebounding the ball much better. I think we’re a better team since that last outing.”
Aside from the free-throw shooting that was more of a one-game problem, the one area Michigan State has focused on getting better is rebounding, specifically keeping opponents off the offensive glass. Indiana grabbed 20 offensive rebounds in the first meeting and scored 16 second-chance points.
The Spartans have slowly improved, limiting Wisconsin to seven offensive rebounds a couple weeks ago before allowing 10 to Rutgers and 12 to Michigan without Nick Ward in the lineup.
“They killed us on the offensive boards,” Izzo said of the first meeting with Indiana. “I looked at that more than the free throws. I don’t know what we’ll shoot from here on in, but I’m not worried about the free throws. I’m worried about giving up 20 offensive rebounds.
“We’ve done some things to try and shore that up and that is No. 1 on my list.”
Michigan State will be forced to shore those things up without Ward, who will miss his third game with a broken hand. Wing Kyle Ahrens continues to battle a bad back and senior guard Matt McQuaid is now dealing with a sprained ankle.
None of it will be an excuse, though, as the Spartans focus on another title.
“I like where we’re at,” Izzo said. “We’ve just got to keep on being smart as a staff with what we’re doing, be smart as a training group and smart as players. They’ve got to get rest and take care of themselves.”
No. 6 Michigan State at Indiana
Tip-off: Noon Saturday, Assembly Hall, Bloomington, Ind.
TV/radio: FOX/WJR 760
Records: Michigan State 23-5, 14-3 Big Ten; Indiana 14-14, 5-12
Outlook: Indiana is 11-5 at home this season, including a 3-5 in Big Ten play. ... Freshman guard Romeo Langford is averaging 17.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game and is sixth in the Big Ten in scoring. … Senior forward Juwan Morgan is second on the team with 14.9 points and leads the team with 8.3 rebounds.