'It would mean a lot': With title at stake, Michigan State intent on sending seniors out in glory
East Lansing — Michigan State will play at the Breslin Center for the final time this season when it hosts Ohio State at 4:30 p.m. on Sunday.
It will be a celebration, to be sure, of the careers of Cassius Winston, Kyle Ahrens, Conner George and perhaps Joshua Langford, who is still mulling his future, unsure if he’ll return next year after losing the last season-and-a-half to a foot injury.
It could also be the celebration of a third straight Big Ten championship. A victory by No. 16 Michigan State over No. 19 Ohio State would earn a share of the title with Wisconsin, which beat Indiana on Saturday to clinch its piece. Maryland could also join the club with a win at home against Michigan on Sunday.
To say it’s a bittersweet day for coach Tom Izzo would be the perfect description. Another shot at a championship is never a bad thing, but saying goodbye to another group of players that have built an impressive resume is no easy task for the coach who’s taking part in his 25th Senior Day leading the program.
“I hate this day,” Izzo said this week. “I say it all the time. I’ve said it every year I've been here since (Mateen) Cleaves and them left. I hate Senior Day, but I'm also I'm excited for those guys who get to play for something after all they've been through. It doesn't get any better than that.
“You kind of worry sometimes, are there too many things going on? But around this program, there's always things going on. So, those guys have been through a lot.”
A little more than two weeks ago, the notion of playing for a shot at the regular-season title was far-fetched at best. Izzo even used the word “miracle” when describing the Spartans’ chances.
However, there has been a significant shift down the stretch as Michigan State (21-9, 13-6 Big Ten) has three straight victories over Iowa, Maryland and Penn State and now finds itself in a familiar position — playing on the final day of the season with a title on the line.
“It would mean a lot, especially being my senior year,” Ahrens said. “It would mean a lot to us, just getting another ring on our court in front of our fans, in front of my family.”
The Spartans have pulled off this feat before. As recently as last season, they knocked off Michigan at home on the final day of the regular season to clinch a share of the championship and in 2018, a win over Illinois at home followed by a victory at Wisconsin locked up an outright title.
But it hasn’t always worked out well for Michigan State.
The Spartans faced Ohio State to end the 2012 season, only to fall to the Buckeyes on Draymond Green’s Senior Day and lose the outright title. Back in 2004, a banner was in the rafters of the Breslin Center ready to be unveiled, but Michigan State lost to Wisconsin in overtime to finish in second place.
“You’ve got everybody saying, ‘Well, you’ve got your Senior Day, you should win, right?’” Izzo said. “Ask Draymond Green that or ask Paul Davis that. We’ve played for the championship a couple times and it didn't go our way. We know that, but we're not going to dwell on it either way.”
Michigan State avenged that Ohio State loss in 2012 a week later by beating the Buckeyes in an epic Big Ten tournament championship game, but this year’s team hopes to take care of business on Sunday and not wait until heading to Indianapolis next week.
Seeding for the tournament is also at stake against Ohio State (21-9, 11-8). Michigan State could still land anywhere from the No. 1 seed to No. 3.
If the Spartans win and end up in a two-way tie with Wisconsin, they will earn the top seed. If Maryland also wins and makes it a three-way tie, Michigan State would be the No. 2 seed. A loss and a Maryland loss to Michigan would also give the Spartans the second seed while a loss and a Maryland win would land Michigan State at No. 3.
But Ohio State comes first on an what will surely be an emotional day. And Izzo knows it will take the Spartans’ best for it to end on a positive note.
“This team is very good, a little bit like Maryland with the fact they've got athletic guards that have some size,” Izzo said. “It wasn't that long ago everybody thought they were the best team in the Big Ten. So we know what we're up against, but I think we've improved and we’re looking forward to the opportunity.”