Spartans don’t let injuries derail Big Ten title run
East Lansing — Line up Michigan State’s nine Big Ten champions under coach Tom Izzo, and the odds of anyone picking this year’s bunch as the favorite might be long.
With former McDonald’s All-American Joshua Langford wheeling around the court with his foot in a boot and Nick Ward, one of the most efficient big men in the country wearing a protective wrap on his hand, this season’s Spartans were hardly at full strength when they took the court on Saturday night with the Big Ten championship on the line.
There was also junior Kyle Ahrens finding a way to play through a back injury that has him wearing a hard brace under his uniform and likely conference player of the year Cassius Winston moving like an old man at times with sore knees. And how about the seniors — Kenny Goins, who’s had ice packs attached to his knees the last couple of weeks and Matt McQuaid using similar treatment on his ankle.
That rag-tag bunch merely raised a banner late Saturday night, rallying from eight down in the second half to beat Michigan, 75-63. It was the second straight championship for the Spartans, who shared it this season with Purdue after winning it outright a season ago.
It was a title not everyone thought would come after the Spartans lost two NBA lottery picks in the offseason. It seemed even less likely as the injuries mounted, from three games without McQuaid followed by Langford’s loss and the constant concern with Ahrens.
The lineup shuffling was so significant, Michigan State’s sports information looked it up and said the Spartans lost 24 games to injury among its regular starting lineup. No other school in the top 10 or in the top six of the Big Ten standings lost more than nine games due to injury among its regular starters.
“It means that we had some guys step up because the guys that stepped up weren’t as good as the two we lost,” Izzo said, referencing the absence of Langford and Ward. “I’m not going to lie about it. They just rallied like a team, like you’re supposed to rally. I don’t want to get sappy, but every Michigan State alum should be proud of this team. To me, they stood for everything our university stands for: blue-collared place, land grant institution for everybody. Everybody helped in this win.”
Langford’s absence was the biggest for the Spartans to overcome. When he first went to the bench, Michigan State won seven in a row. After a loss at Purdue, the news came the junior guard was done for the year. It led to back-to-back losses to Indiana and Illinois as the Spartans were shook.
When Ward suffered his injury three weeks ago, Izzo did his best to make sure it wouldn’t have a similar affect.
“I think honestly that was an important meeting,” Izzo said. “I told my staff I’m having a meeting early. They weren’t happy. We had won the game (against Ohio State), but we lost Nick. I just said that I had to set the narrative because I was feeling sorry for myself, so maybe the speech was more to me than to them. It was so well received.
“I left there and I felt like we can get this done. Once in a while you have these meetings or talks and once in a while they really mean something. I think that meeting had a lot to do with tonight. I really do.”
The Spartans had won three in a row at that point and won the next two, including in Ann Arbor in the first meeting with the Wolverines.
After slipping up on the road against Indiana, Michigan State’s banged-up group cruised past Nebraska before rallying in the second half on Saturday to knock off the Wolverines for the second time this season.
“It’s kind of a microcosm of the year, wasn’t it, the way the game went, and the year went?” Izzo said. “As I said to my team, we’ve lost six games and three of those games we led late, four of them actually. We didn’t win many that we shouldn’t have won. So, this team has been pretty consistent. The reason I think they’ve been consistent is their defense. Michigan just torched it in the first half.
“I think that’s why we’ve hung in there. We’ve been about as solid of a defensive team, for one that I didn’t think would be a great defensive team. I guess that credit goes to my staff and those players.”
Headed to the Big Ten tournament next week in Chicago, the Spartans should get some help as Ward is expected to be back. He tried to get Izzo to let him play on Saturday, instead he’ll get another five days for his hand to get stronger.
Those days off will allow Ahrens to rest his back while Winston and Goins will be glad to rest their aching knees. After that, it’s the big prize in the NCAA Tournament.
The Spartans probably won’t be anyone’s favorite. But after finding a way to capture a conference title, few will be counting them out.
“I always tell my guys, ‘You’ve gotta try to leave some mark here,’” Izzo said. “Yeah, it’s easy to leave a mark of winning the Big Ten or going to a Final Four or win the Big Ten tournament. But this group did something that no other group has done. They won a Big Ten championship on senior night against their rival. It’s just another one I check the box on. Someday, they’ll be remembered for that. It’s always cool when guys leave doing something that no one else has done. At least it’s cool to me.
“We’ve been grinding all year. That’s what we are. We’re a blue-collar team that’s gonna stay blue-collar ’til the day I walk out of this building. I’m proud of them for that.”