Lincoln, Neb. – Basic math says it’s not over, but reality says otherwise.
As Michigan State prepared to play at Nebraska on Thursday night, there were five games left to play in the regular season and the idea of winning a third straight Big Ten championship seemed out of reach, even if the Spartans haven’t technically been eliminated from the race.
“Sometimes young guys can’t handle the pressure,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “Everybody wants to go where you are playing for championships. There’s no secret, we need more than a miracle to win the Big Ten with five games left. So now, you can coach a little bit different, you can play a little bit different.
“We’re going to be able to rest some guys, and we are going to hold our top guys accountable for some things and figure out what it's going to take to win the conference tournament, and hopefully the NCAA Tournament because you don't have as good a shot to win the league. There's no secrets about that, but I do think we still have a chance to win a lot of games and increase our seeding.”
The first step would be taking care of business against the Cornhuskers on Thursday night. Nebraska has knocked off a couple teams at home this season but it has currently lost 10 in a row. Assuming Michigan State doesn’t have a hiccup and improves to .500 on the road this season, the final four games will be a proving ground.
What the Spartans are trying to prove – aside from shoring up their NCAA Tournament resume – is that everything they’ve been through this season won’t be in vain. The close losses, the off-court stress, the coming up short in close game after close game.
If Michigan State manages to put it all together over the final two weeks of the regular season, expectations will remain high headed into the Big Ten tournament and beyond.
“It is maddening,” Izzo said. “You sit there and say, ‘When do people wake up?’ And you keep saying the same thing over and over, but I just keep going back to we're very young … and so we're relying a lot on those young guys and I've got to be as patient as I can be with them because they have done some good things It’s encouraging.”
Of course, Michigan State is younger than it expected to be this season. With Joshua Langford out for the season and Joey Hauser sitting after transferring, it’s forced the Spartans to rely heavily on freshmen and sophomores at both shooting guard and power forward.
While senior guard Cassius Winston and junior center Xavier Tillman are being counted on heavily, the progress from the likes of sophomores Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham, along with freshmen Rocket Watts, Malik Hall and Julius Marble, is the variable.
On some nights, one or more have been outstanding. On others, they have been absent.
It’s all part of the growth process, but with five games to play, it’s time the lessons start sinking in. It’s the reason Izzo broke down some of the Spartans’ late-game mistakes in a team meeting this week.
“It was one of those eye-opening things for us,” Henry said. “It’s been different games where we’ve been closer than others. All in all, we’re right there. We just gotta make those key plays, make those free throws, don’t miss that defensive assignment, get that rebound.
“We’re super-close in all facets of the game. It’s just: Can we take that step as a team?”
That’s the maddening part Izzo talked about. The Spartans are right there, but they haven’t taken that next step. It needs to start changing on Thursday at Nebraska because the schedule from there includes a home game with Iowa, back-to-back trips to Maryland and Penn State followed by a home game with Ohio State.
The Spartans understand the mistakes need to stop. If not, the losses could continue to mount.
“We just can’t keep learning lessons around this time of the season,” Henry said. “The first letter in lessons is L. We’ve got to stop taking those.”