No. 15 MSU tries to break the curse of the Big Ten road team
East Lansing — Tom Izzo was asked this week to try and explain what’s happening in the Big Ten.
Michigan State's coach offered a few explanations from parity around the conference, quality coaching and difficult schedules to try and understand why 12 teams are 1-1 in the standings without a single road team winning a game.
In the end, Izzo just shook his head.
“It sounds like I'm like you guys, I really don't know what the hell I'm talking about,” Izzo said with a laugh. “I'm just grasping for straws. I've never seen this.”
No. 15 Michigan State will provide the latest chance for a visiting team to win as the Big Ten wraps up its early two-game stretch for each team with the Spartans’ trip to Northwestern for an 8 p.m. tip Wednesday at Welsh-Ryan Arena.
Entering the game, the Spartans (7-3, 1-0 Big Ten) sit alone atop the conference standings while Northwestern (5-4, 0-1) are at the bottom. Sandwiched in between are 12 teams all with one conference victory and one defeat. Some of the results were predictable, others were not — see then-No. 3 Ohio State’s loss at Minnesota on Sunday that was preceded by Nebraska winning at home over Purdue.
If Northwestern manages to pull off the upset, that would mean a 14-way tie for first place. Or, if the glass is half empty, a 14-way tie for last place.
It’s a trend that will certainly sort itself out when teams get back to Big Ten play after the first of the year, but for now it’s a testament to the difficulty of winning conference games on the road.
“You don't get many off days in this league right now,” Izzo said. “There used to be three or four teams where e you said you can't afford to play bad against this team and still win, but if you could just play good or decent (you’d win). Now it's, you better be playing your 90-percent A game or you're probably not winning because I think more people believe they can beat you.”
Michigan State knows all about Northwestern and the upsets the Wildcats have pulled off, even the ones they’ve almost pulled off.
Two years ago when the teams played in Rosemont, Ill., while Northwestern’s home arena was being renovated, the Wildcats opened a 27-point lead late in the first half. The Spartans rallied in the second half and pulled off the largest comeback in Big Ten history, earning a 65-60 win.
They have no intention of putting themselves in that position again this season in their return to Northwestern for their first game on campus since 2016.
“You just got to understand Northwestern is a great team,” fifth-year senior Kyle Ahrens said. “They’ve got really good players. They have some veteran guys coming back. They have some young guys who bring it, so we've got to understand what we do, run our lanes, bring energy, bring toughness and play Michigan State basketball.
"It’s the Big Ten and anything happens. The Big Ten is a tough conference you're going to get each and everyone's best game each game, so no matter what you’ve got to come ready to play and bring it.”
Michigan State will likely be bringing it without freshman guard Rocket Watts, who will likely miss his third straight game with a stress reaction in his lower left leg. His status for Saturday’s home game with Eastern Michigan is also unclear.
The Spartans will also be looking to improve the outside shooting that has been inconsistent most of the season. They are shooting 31.3 percent from 3-point range, which ranks ninth in the Big Ten, and in Saturday’s victory over Oakland, Cassius Winston and Gabe Brown combined to go 1-for-14.
“I feel like everybody, when it comes to shooting, we are in a slump right now,” said Brown, who is 11-for-33. “I know we have to pick that up. Kyle is a great shooter. I'm a great shooter. Aaron (Henry) is a great shooter. The whole team can shoot the ball.”
If they start shooting the ball and limit the turnovers — the Spartans are averaging 12.4 a game — they’ll likely avoid the road-loss bug that’s going around the Big Ten.
A win won’t make Michigan State a perfect team, but considering what it’s endured the first two months of the season, it will indicate things are headed in the right direction with what could be a game on the field.
“We're still a work in progress and that might frustrate some, but it doesn't frustrate me,” Izzo said. “I'm disappointed that I think there's a couple of categories that I thought we'd be better at. I didn't think we turned it over as much, and I thought would shoot a little better, but there's an underlying factor with a person (Winston) and with this team.
“So we're trying to continually move forward, and we're trying to learn from our mistakes and adjust. And yet we're trying to wrap our arms around a special guy and try to help him and those things don't always go completely together. But I see him making a lot of progress. I see us making a lot of progress.”
Michigan State at Northwestern
Tip-off: 8 Wednesday, Welsh-Ryan Arena, Evanston, Ill.
Records: No. 15 Michigan State 7-3, 1-0 Big Ten; Northwestern 5-4, 0-1
Outlook: The game marks the seventh in 11 games that Michigan State has played at a neutral site or on the road. … Sophomore forward Pete Nance leads Northwestern by averaging 11.9 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. Freshman center Ryan Young, who scored 25 points in the win over SIUE on Sunday, is averaging 11 points and 6.7 rebounds. … Graduate-transfer guard Pat Spencer, an All-American lacrosse player at Loyola (Md.), has started every game and is averaging 10.2 points and 4.1 assists.