Michigan State coach Tom Izzo looks ahead to the final week of the regular season, and looks back at Saturday's loss to Indiana. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
East Lansing — After Michigan State lost at Indiana on Saturday, a frustrated Tom Izzo uttered one line that almost got lost among the list of things that led to the Spartans dropping a second straight game to the Hoosiers.
“I know one thing, we’re not dead yet,” Izzo said.
With two games left in the regular season and one game behind Purdue in the Big Ten standings, it’s true, the Spartans are not dead yet. There’s a path toward sharing a regular-season championship if Michigan State can win on Tuesday at home against Nebraska and Saturday in the season finale against Michigan.
It also would require a Boilermakers loss either at Minnesota on Tuesday or at Northwestern on Saturday. It’s not highly likely, but as Izzo pointed out Monday at his weekly news conference, the chance at least exists.
“We got one week left in the regular season and as I’ve said a million time, what you really hope for each year is to be mathematically in place to win a championship,” Izzo said. “We still do after a disappointing finish in the game Saturday.”
And he’s right. Now ranked No. 9 in the nation, the Spartans (23-6, 14-4 Big Ten) are not finished in the conference race. But as much as anything, Izzo was likely referring to the psyche of his team, one that has dealt with its share of adversity and doubters this season, but still finds itself among the top 10 in the nation with more Quadrant 1 victories than any team in the country.
First it was the loss of Joshua Langford back in January with just two conference games played. At the same time, junior Kyle Ahrens injured his back — an injury that has bothered him most of the season. And two weeks ago, it was the loss of Nick Ward to a broken hand.
Through all that, Izzo is optimistic.
“For every negative there is always a positive,” Izzo said. “And I’m the eternal pessimist sometimes so I don’t always see them, but I’m seeing some things I really like and who knows, maybe it will be enough. It just might be enough.”
Enough for Michigan State to grab a share of the conference championship? Maybe not. But it might be enough to go to Chicago and win the conference tournament. It might be enough to get on a run in the NCAA Tournament.
Resolve helps, and the Spartans have had plenty of it this season. When Langford first went out of the lineup, Michigan State won seven in a row. And when Ward was hurt, the Spartans were in the midst of a five-game winning streak that included a victory at Michigan.
“This team has been through a lot,” Izzo said. “As I told them today, they’ve been kicked around, punched around, moved around by me and everybody else but we’re still standing. We still have a chance to do some special things here.
“It was not an easy day (Sunday). You get back (from a loss) and come in the next day and those aren’t easy days, but as I told Cassius (Winston) today, ‘It’s easy to lead from ahead, it’s hard to lead from behind. When you’re leading from behind you really got to push people. I thought he and (Matt) McQuaid had unbelievable practices today.”
Some of the optimism likely comes from the fact that there is some good news on the injury front.
While Langford is out for the season and Ahrens will continue to be limited the rest of the way, Izzo said McQuaid is “close to 85 percent” with the ankle he sprained last week, and Ward might be closer than anyone thought me might be at this point. The junior center won’t play Tuesday against Nebraska but getting back to face Michigan on Saturday isn’t out of the question, lessening some of the burden on Kenny Goins and Xavier Tillman.
Until then, Izzo insists he likely will get more minutes for two freshmen — point guard Foster Loyer and wing Gabe Brown. Loyer played just two minutes at Indiana and Brown didn’t play at all, but Izzo said Loyer “deserves a chance” and that he’s “comfortable” playing Brown.
Whoever is on the court, the Spartans understand that Saturday’s loss — as crushing as it might have been — hasn’t derailed the season. As Izzo said, they’ll keep “reinventing the wheel” with the hopes they somehow end up as healthy as they can be and have a sensible rotation.
“We’ve got a ton of things to play for yet and I think our players know that,” Izzo said. “That’s kind of exactly what I asked my team today. Before we started practice I said, “You know, X (Tillman), I know what kind of guy you are. I know you’re tough. I know you were tired at the end (against Indiana). Are we gonna succumb to that or are we gonna find a way? Cash (Winston), I know I’m beating the hell out of ya. Want me to feel sorry for ya and tell everybody that or you want to find a way?’
“I think we can find a way. I think it’s got to be together and I think we’ve got a real together group and I think they’re going to rally. Sometimes rallies aren’t good enough, but if we rally I like my chances. I really do.”
Nebraska at No. 9 Michigan State
Tip-off: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
TV/radio: ESPN2/WJR 760
Records: Nebraska 15-14, 5-13 Big Ten; Michigan State 23-6, 14-4
Outlook: Michigan State has won four in a row in the series, including in January when Winston scored a career-high 29 in Lincoln. That game ended Nebraska’s 20-game home winning streak. … Cornhuskers senior James Palmer has taken 221 free throws this season, which ranks 10th nationally. Palmer ranks second on Nebraska’s single-season list in both free throws made (175) and attempted (221).