East Lansing – Just five games into Big Ten play, it’s hard to ask for anything more than five victories and not a single blemish.
That’s the position No. 8 Michigan State is in following Thursday’s victory over Minnesota, and as the Spartans prepare to hit the road for a Sunday tip at Purdue, it’s exactly the sort of start they were looking for.
However, Tom Izzo knows what has happened to this point guarantees nothing over the next couple of months.
“Don’t get carried away,” Izzo warned.
Yes, Izzo admitted, the shiny 5-0 conference record looks good. But it’s hardly indicative of a dominant team that’s ready to plow its way to a third straight Big Ten championship. In fact, it’s more of a sign the Spartans have benefited from an early schedule that has included just one Big Ten road game, and that was against Northwestern, the only team without a conference victory.
“The Big Ten schedule is so wacky the last three or four years,” Izzo said. “When you start out with four out of five games at home and your road game was against a team that's right now a little more at the bottom (it’s tougher to evaluate).
“I'm pleased with some things. I'm pleased with our defense, really pleased with our rebounding, but if you look at the conference in general, not a lot of teams are winning on the road.”
In fact, through 29 Big Ten games, the road team has won only four times, and the Spartans (13-3, 5-0 Big Ten) are about to get a reminder on what life is like on the road as three of the next four are away from the Breslin Center.
Beginning with Sunday’s noon tip at Purdue, Michigan State returns home the next week to host Wisconsin on Friday before leaving town again the following week for games at Indiana on Jan. 23 and Minnesota on Jan. 26.
For the Spartans, it’s comforting to know they’ll have two of the Big Ten’s best – guard Cassius Winston and big man Xavier Tillman – when they enter environments such as Purdue’s Mackey Arena on Sunday. The key will be how quickly some of the youngsters adapt after playing in some big environments early in non-conference action.
“We played in big games,” Izzo said. “When you're at Madison Square Garden, when you're at Seton Hall, those are big games. When you play against Duke at home, they are big games. But I don't think we are ready for that yet. I don't think our freshman are. It will be a new experience for them.
“It's a good time to go on the road and see where we are, but there is going to be a lot of basketball left right now. … I stick with what I said, I still think that five losses will win this league."
There have been signs that those beyond Winston and Tillman are starting to round into shape.
Sophomore Aaron Henry has steadily increased his play after some early-season prodding from Izzo while sophomore Gabe Brown has flourished as a starter. Sophomore Foster Loyer has even seen his confidence jump significantly in the past couple of weeks while forward Marcus Bingham has proven he can play at this level since joining the starting lineup.
Others in the rotation are also making progress, including freshman guard Rocket Watts, who missed four games with a leg injury, as well as freshmen forwards Malik Hall and Julius Marble, while sophomore forward Thomas Kithier has been steady.
That continued improvement throughout the rotation – as well as the possible return for fifth-year senior Kyle Ahrens from an Achilles injury – will be critical if the Spartans expect to remain atop the Big Ten standings.
“We’ve got a tough turnaround now,” Izzo said of the early start at Purdue on Sunday after the late tip Thursday at home against Minnesota. “We've got some guys worn out -- I don't know if Ahrens will play -- so I'm concerned about that, but I am pleased. If you're 5-0, you're 5-0, and I think we have played well enough and at times.”
Playing Purdue at Mackey Arena will be a unique challenge.
The Boilermakers (9-7, 2-3) have struggled to score points this season but pushed Michigan to double overtime on Thursday, and big man Trevion Williams has been outstanding. Mackey also can be intimidating to opposing players.
“Purdue is a really hard place to play,” Tillman said. “The crowd is crazy, almost like ours, but their arena is like a dome, so it's even louder and I know they are going to be excited when we come into town. We just have to make sure that we stay poised, that's the biggest thing, and try our best to communicate.”
Tillman will be critical with the communication combined with the calmness of Winston. It’s proven to be the right combination at home, and now the Spartans will start to see if it is as they travel around the Big Ten in the chase of another championship.
“We're not world-beaters,” Izzo said. “We don't line up and anybody is fearing us. What we got is a hell of a general and we've got another guy playing well. We've got to play better as a team and get that ball moving again and that will be my biggest thing (to work on.)”
Michigan State at Purdue
Tip-off: Noon Sunday, Mackey Arena, West Lafayette, Ind.
Records: No. 8 Michigan State 13-3, 5-0 Big Ten; Purdue 9-7, 2-3