East Lansing — Tom Izzo looked to the ceiling on Monday afternoon then looked back down, measuring how many feet were between his head and the top of the media room at the Breslin Center.
The Michigan State coach was trying to illustrate how much better he still thinks the Spartans can get, even as they head into the final four games of the regular season two games back of first-place Maryland.
“I do not think, in any way, shape or form that we have maxed out,” Izzo said. “We're about as far from that ceiling as I am to this ceiling. I think we’ve got a long ways to go yet. Whether we'll ever get there, I don't know.
“When they say you don't want to be playing your best basketball in the middle of the season, we solved that problem and we didn't do it. But I think we have a chance to play some of our better basketball at the end of the season, and that's when you want to be playing (your best).”
Izzo was right about the Spartans not playing their best in the middle of the season. After beginning Big Ten play with five straight wins, Michigan State is 5-6 since, including a three-game skid that was halted only after Xavier Tillman put back a Cassius Winston miss in the final seconds at Illinois to win by one after the Spartans had blown a 20-point second-half lead.
Throughout the last two months — outside of a blowout loss at Purdue — Michigan State has found itself in plenty of close games but has often been unable to make winning plays down the stretch. It’s happened on the road and it’s happened at home as Michigan State has lost its last two at the Breslin Center, the low point coming a little more than a week ago when it gave up a seven-point lead in the final three minutes to lose to Maryland.
It led Izzo to break down all of the small plays — a missed layup, an offensive rebound allowed, another turnover — that has made the difference in being in a four-way tie for second in the Big Ten and leading the conference.
“I keep trying to tell our guys that we're not that far from being really good,” Izzo said. “Really, really good. And that's what we're going to try to aim for in the next couple of weeks starting with Tuesday.”
Starting with Tuesday, of course, is a showdown with one of the other second-place teams — No. 18 Iowa. It is the only meeting of the season between the teams and the winner will be in position to keep putting pressure on first-place Maryland.
It’s not a position No. 24 Michigan State (18-9, 10-6 Big Ten) thought it would in as recently as last week. But life in the Big Ten means things can change quickly, and Maryland’s loss at Ohio State on Sunday has given new hope to a whole group of conference teams.
The Spartans admit they haven’t been playing well, but they also understand this is the perfect time of year for everything to start coming together.
“We might be behind a little bit and might need a couple things to happen, but crazier things have happened for teams,” Winston said. “We’re definitely at a point where we just got to put it all together. Against the top teams in the conference, we played them down to the wire. Any team in a country I like our chances against, it's just about us when that sticks, when the team gets it, when you put it all together it kind of just sticks and it carries out.
“I don't think there’s any better time than now for it to kind of all come together and for all of it to stick and guys just figure it out and make it click and go on a run, which I don’t think we have done yet this season. So, I feel like right now would be the perfect time to make one.”
They’ll have to do so against a brutal schedule over the next two weeks.
Iowa (19-8, 10-6) has won three of its last four while Michigan State then heads to Maryland on Saturday. After that, it’s a trip to Penn State followed by the season finale at home against Ohio State.
Just like Michigan State, all four of those teams have plenty to play for, meaning the final push for the Big Ten regular-season championship — not to mention seeding in the conference tournament — will be compelling at the least and fascinating at best.
“There’s going to be a lot of wins and losses by a lot of teams yet,” Izzo said. “Someone’s gonna win these games, they’re all against each other. And unfortunately, we’re all going to beat the daylights out of each other. I don’t know if that will be good, bad or indifferent as we move forward but it gives you something to play for.”
No. 18 Iowa at No. 24 Michigan State
Tip-off: 7 p.m. Tuesday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
Records: Iowa 19-8, 10-6 Big Ten; Michigan State 18-9, 10-6
Outlook: Michigan State has won four straight in the series with just two losses in the last 15 meetings. … Senior center Luka Garza leads the Big Ten in scoring at 23.7 points a game and is fourth in the league with 9.6 rebounds a game. ... Sophomore guard Joe Wieskamp is second averaging 14.9 points and 6.1 rebounds and leads the team with 50 3-pointers.