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Spartans get shot at distancing themselves from rest of pack this week

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — As far as weeks go it might not have the ring of Championship Week and certainly lacks some of the ferocity of Shark Week.

Still, by the time Sunday evening rolls around we’ll likely have a lot better idea of where Michigan State stands, and to some degree, the entire Big Ten.

At least, that’s the way Tom Izzo sees it.

“Mostly, they're gonna have to go through the wars and they’re going to have to experience it,” says MSU junior Xavier Tillman about younger Spartans playing in hostile environments.

“I'm looking at this as kind of a separation week,” the Michigan State coach said. “One way or another we're either gonna win some games and separate ourselves, or we’re gonna lose some games and not separate ourselves. I think that's going to give us a better indication (of where we are).”

The record says that No. 11 Michigan State is in first place in the Big Ten. Winners of nine of their last 10 games, the Spartans (14-4, 6-1 Big Ten) are a game clear of second-place Illinois and Rutgers, two teams they have already beaten.

However, the quick start to conference play has had the added benefit of just two games away from the Breslin Center. One of those resulted in a win at Northwestern, which is in last place in the Big Ten with just one conference victory, while the second at Purdue a little more than a week ago produced an ugly, 29-point loss.

So it’s fair for Izzo, or anyone, to wonder where exactly the Spartans stand as they get set to head to Indiana for an 8:30 p.m. tip on Thursday followed by a trip to Minnesota for a 3 p.m. matchup on Sunday.

“It’s topsy-turvy as far as, I don't know if you guys have any idea where all the teams are in the league,” Izzo said at his weekly news conference. “I sure as hell don't, but I think we’re going to you know, after this week you'll get a little bit of a better idea, not just about Michigan State but really about the whole conference if you ask me.”

Where Michigan State stands will say plenty about the rest of the conference. If the Spartans are able to come up with two wins this week, it would create that separation and mean everyone else in the conference is likely playing for second. Split the games or lose both and it means the Big Ten is truly a 12-team race.

Entering Tuesday’s games, six teams were within two games with another four three games back while a struggling Ohio State team that had a handful of huge nonconference victories and was once ranked No. 3 in the country is four games behind.

“When I heard Seth Greenberg, I think, say 50 teams could win the national championship, I said, ‘Well, my old buddy is going senile,’” Izzo said, referencing the former coach and current ESPN analyst. “Then I thought for 10 seconds and I said, ‘He's right. There probably are right now.’

“I think it's the most confusing thing. There's a ton of teams that could win it all. (The Big Ten) has 12 teams in the top 50 (of the NET rankings). When you have 12 teams in a top 50 that means you have 12 teams capable of getting in the NCAA Tournament, and we're just going to beat the hell out of each other.”

The key for Michigan State is to grab a few of those valuable road wins and avoid beatings like the one it took at Purdue. Recent history says the Spartans should fare well after going 14-4 on the road over the past two seasons.

But this is a different team, and outside of senior guard Cassius Winston and junior big man Xavier Tillman, experience is thin. Sophomore Aaron Henry played consistent minutes last season, but the rest of the rotation was used sparingly or, in the case of Rocket Watts, Malik Hall and Julius Marble, this is their first year.

“We’ve got two with a lot of experience, one with a little bit of experience and seven with really none,” Izzo said. “I don't look at age or grade, I look at experience.

“So, some other guys are starting to grow a little bit and hopefully we're getting a little better, but I don't know. You hope (the experience of Winston and Tillman) helps you, but we're still awfully young in a lot of ways.”

Which makes the Purdue loss critical.

If the younger players remain shell-shocked, that might not bode well on Thursday in a place like Assembly Hall in Bloomington and probably won’t look any better Sunday at Williams Arena in Minneapolis.

“Mostly, they're gonna have to go through the wars and they’re going to have to experience it,” Tillman said. “They get in the game and the crowd is yelling, trying to talk to them, maybe cussing at them or something like that. They’ve just got to go through it and understand that no matter what you still have to play, regardless of what’s going on.”

It all leads to Izzo’s declaration that this has become separation week, a chance for the Spartans to prove they are the true favorites in arguably the best conference in the nation or if they’re going to have to scratch and claw for every inch, right along with every other team.

“It’s a big week for us,” Izzo said. “One of those weeks, if you can win a game or two, you start separating. If you lose a game or two, the season’s not even thought to be over because everybody's going to beat the hell out of everybody. That’s the way I see it right now.

“I’m gonna try to enjoy some of the ride.”

That ride starts Thursday. Where Michigan State stands when it comes to a stop is anyone’s guess.

“It can make a statement for our program,” Henry said. “But we have to separate ourselves in terms of being with the pack in the Big Ten and just being that elite school in our conference and just knowing that we can't be like everybody else.

“We know what everybody else has been doing on the road, including us. I mean, we’re 1-1 on the road and we’ve got some huge road games coming up and we want to see where we stand and we want to be resilient and not be like the rest of the teams.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau