'It's a rebirth': Spartans get second chance at title, but injuries persist
East Lansing — A couple days ago, Michigan State thought its shot at a Big Ten championship had evaporated after a loss at Indiana.
But, as the conference has been all season, the unlikely happened on Tuesday night, opening the door for not only the Spartans, but rival Michigan. With Purdue’s loss to Minnesota, all three teams are tied for first place and the winner of Saturday’s showdown between No. 7 Michigan and No. 9 Michigan State will be assured of at least a share of the regular-season championship.
“It’s a rebirth, kind of,” fifth-year senior Kenny Goins said at practice on Wednesday. “We kind of thought we were out and relying on someone else. Thanks to Minnesota, they gave us another chance at it.
“We’re all excited to get that opportunity. It feels like we finally got a break instead of a broken bone as we’ve had so many times this year.”
One of those broken bones occurred just a little more than two weeks ago when Nick Ward suffered a hairline fracture of his left (shooting) hand. He had surgery and has missed the last four games but has been shooting in practice while keeping up on his conditioning.
Ward was doing the same thing at practice on Wednesday, but the junior center’s status for Saturday’s regular-season finale against Michigan hasn’t changed much. According to coach Tom Izzo, that means it’s unlikely Ward will play as the Spartans and Wolverines play with at least a share of the Big Ten championship on the line.
“A million-to-one chance,” Izzo said after practice. “I have no idea. We had no contact today. He will not be allowed to have contact tomorrow, but we’ll get a better feel for how his hand feels and then it just goes according to the pain and getting him back.”
Ward has missed the last four games after breaking his hand in a win over Ohio State. Sunday will mark three weeks since his surgery. That is an optimistic return for anyone, but Ward has been shooting and is doing his best to stay in shape.
The status for junior wing Kyle Ahrens is potentially a bit more positive. Ahrens did not play in Tuesday’s victory over Nebraska as he battles a bad back.
“Kyle, I hope has a little better chance, but he’s still struggling a little bit today,” Izzo said. “But I think for him he’s played hurt before and I think he’ll be there ready to play. I’m 99-percent sure, unless something happens, he’ll be suited up for sure.”
None of that guarantees that Ahrens can play, or if he does, how long.
“I’m just taking it day by day, doing what I can,” Ahrens said, noting he feels about 50 percent right now. “We have the long run to look at, too, not just this game, so were excited for it.
“I don’t even know what I’m supposed to say. Depending on how I feel, I’ll do anything to be out there, but we still have the Big Ten tournament and NCAAs to look at. Just got to be smart at this point.”
As important as the postseason is, the regular-season championship is a big deal, too, especially at Michigan State. The Spartans won the title last season and are looking to repeat. Getting Ward, Ahrens or both back for Saturday’s 8 p.m. tip with the Wolverines could go a long way toward that second straight championship.
The added benefit comes with the winner earning the No. 1 seed in next week’s conference tournament in Chicago.
None of that was possible until Minnesota’s win over Purdue, which had the attention of the Spartans on Tuesday night.
“Somebody told me as I was walking in (to the press conference) that Purdue was down 10 and I didn’t put a lot of credence in that, personally,” Izzo said. “I’ve seen them down 10 before. I did my media obligations and went upstairs, and I think they were down one then. I didn’t watch it much, but I did listen as I heard some of our staff and the girls in the office kind of screaming and cheering. What the heck? It’s not anything against Purdue, it’s just to give us a chance.
“When they won, a lot of guys texted me last night and when we talked today we said we’ve got a chance. … We’ve played good enough this year to be in the position where we have a chance and that’s all we can ask for is a chance and now we got one. I think they’re excited and I know I was excited.”
Big Ten title picture
Michigan, Michigan State and Purdue are all 15-4 in the Big Ten with one conference game remaining in the regular season.
Michigan: Will earn the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament and at least a share of the Big Ten regular-season championship by defeating Michigan State on Saturday night (8 p.m., ESPN).
Michigan State: Will earn the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament and at least a share of the Big Ten regular-season championship by defeating Michigan on Saturday night.
Purdue: Plays at Northwestern on Saturday (2:30 p.m., BTN). If Northwestern wins, the Michigan-Michigan State winner claims the outright Big Ten championship.
If Purdue wins, the Boliermakers share the Big Ten title with the UM-MSU winner. If that winner is UM, then UM earns the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament based on a 1-0 head-to-head record over Purdue. If that winner is MSU, then MSU earns the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten tournament based on a 2-0 record over Michigan. (The head-to-head tiebreaker is skipped since MSU and Purdue split their regular-season series 1-1.)