East Lansing — Michigan State is on a roll, having won seven straight games and coming off a momentum-building victory over Michigan on Sunday.
But as coach Tom Izzo continues to say, the Spartans have a long way to go if they’re going to have a chance at winning a third straight Big Ten title and having deep March run that many expected before the season. Even as No. 8 Michigan State (12-3, 4-0 Big Ten) sits alone atop the conference, there aren’t many easy nights.
This week, Michigan State plays host to Minnesota on Thursday night, followed by a trip Sunday to Purdue.
“You look at where we are and this is a big week,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “And it seems like I’m going to say that every week.
“But those two wins last week are kind of gone and the beauty of this conference right now is there isn't a lot of relaxing. I'd say we're two or three, four games away from really figuring out where the conference is. The two games early (in the season) create a problem. Wisconsin and Minnesota were playing so bad early, and now Wisconsin might be playing as well as anybody and Minnesota is playing much, much better than they were.”
The Spartans won’t see Wisconsin until next week but Minnesota is up next. The Golden Gophers (8-6, 2-2) have won four of their last five, including a home win over Ohio State, with the only loss coming in double overtime on the road against Purdue.
Six-foot-10 sophomore Daniel Oturu is second in the Big Ten in scoring at 19.1 points a game and leads the conference in rebounding with 12.4 a game. Oturu has nine double-doubles this season and in Sunday’s victory over Northwestern, he had 19 points, 16 rebounds and matched a career high with five blocks.
“The Oturu kid is the second-leading scorer in the league and we recruited him a little bit,” Izzo said. “Another bad decision by my staff and me, I guess. But he’s been a beast. He is playing very, very well.”
The Gophers also are getting solid play from sophomore guard Marcus Carr, a transfer from Pittsburgh who is scoring 15.9 points a game and his handing out 6.9 assists.
“Carr has probably been the surprise of the league,” Izzo said. “He’s been an electrifying point guard, can shoot a three. He’s kind of like a Mateen Cleaves, (but) stronger. He actually seeks and enjoys contact. He’ll get to the rack a lot and he’s shooting a ton of free throws.”
The key for Michigan State will be continuing to iron out its rotation beyond point guard Cassius Winston, wing Aaron Henry and center Xavier Tillman.
Izzo says he would like for the playing group to tighten up, but with questions at the shooting guard — freshman Rocket Watts continues to increase his minutes as he recovers from a leg injury — and power forward position, that doesn’t seem likely anytime soon.
“I am comfortable with Cassius, I am comfortable with Xavier, and then I am pretty comfortable with Aaron,” Izzo said. “And then I’m not real comfortable. I know that I have Gabe (Brown) and Rocket there, and the Kyle Ahrens (injury status) is really day to day.”
Power forward has been a revolving door with sophomores Marcus Bingham and Thomas Kithier both starting, while freshmen Malik Hall and Julius Marble to a lesser extent have had their moments, as well.
“That four spot is probably the big question mark,” Izzo said., “Just when I think one guy is stepping up, he falters and another guy steps up. I thought we got more out of Julius, but it’s hard to play four and rotate them, but then none of those guys are expecting to play 25 minutes, so in some ways you can as you practice more together and that’s what we are trying to do.
“So, I don't think we can play 10, 11 guys, but I think there's gonna be certain guys who can play against certain teams.”
Deep rotation or not, the Spartans understand they are playing well and are in a good position early in the Big Ten season. Still, they understand — as Izzo has pointed out — there are no easy games in the conference.
What gives the Spartans confidence as another tough week begins is they feel like there’s plenty of growth ahead.
“I'm excited that I still don't feel that we played our best basketball,” Winston said. “I feel like we're doing a lot of good things and we're going in the right direction, but we're still getting better and there's still a lot of things that we can fix. I’m worried about a couple guys are new to success a little bit, so you’ve got to try to keep guys humble and remind them this isn't the end goal. This is just a part of the journey and just keep guys hungry.”
Minnesota at No. 8 Michigan State
► Tip-off: 9 p.m. Thursday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
► TV/radio: ESPN2/WJR 760
► Records: Minnesota 8-6, 2-2 Big Ten; Michigan State 12-3, 4-0
► Outlook: The Spartans play their third straight conference home game. ... They lead the country in assists per game at 19.7, while ranking third in rebounds per game with 43.2. … Golden Gophers sophomore Daniel Oturu is averaging 19.1 points and 12.4 rebounds a game while leading the Big Ten with nine double-doubles.