'It's go time': Spartans have little margin for error to save NCAA streak
It’s not like there’s a board in the Michigan State locker room, one that marks how many wins it will take to get the Spartans to the NCAA Tournament.
That’s tough to do when you don’t know what that number is.
But it’s also something the Spartans aren’t trying to think about much these days.
“I mean, of course it’s going to creep into your mind,” junior Aaron Henry admitted. “But the best thing you can do is just focus on the now, the immediate future. We’ve got Nebraska on Saturday.”
It’s probably best that Michigan State (8-7, 2-7 Big Ten) keeps its focus on Nebraska and trying to end a four-game skid, something the Spartans haven’t endured since the 2006-07 season. But as the struggles have continued since the beginning of conference play, it’s been hard to avoid thinking about the NCAA Tournament.
Michigan State has made the field 22 straight seasons, the third-longest active streak in the country. But right now, it will take a dramatic turnaround for the Spartans to find themselves in a position necessary to extend that run to 23 years.
“As much as you don’t want to talk about it, everybody knows it,” junior forward Joey Hauser said. “It’s go time right now. There’s no ‘take a couple of losses here or there.’ We’ve got to start winning games if we’re going to go to the NCAA Tournament.
“And it's not so much just to keep a streak alive, but this team has expectations that they want to reach and goals that we set in mind before the season started. So those goals, some of them we can't reach if we don't make them to the NCAA Tournament.”
With 11 games to play — assuming a pair of postponed games are rescheduled and there are no other games lost because of COVID-19 — it’s a tough road for the Spartans. It would likely take a better-than-.500 finish to the regular season to get the job done, and even then, it might not be enough.
It also doesn’t help that Michigan State plays in the toughest conference in America, meaning there are few, if any, easy nights.
“In this league, you don't get to get healthy very often,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “And that’s the problem. If you’re not playing really well, you're probably not winning.”
For the first three games of its current skid, that described the Spartans to a T. It began with the one-point loss at home to Purdue when Michigan State squandered a 17-point second-half lead.
After sitting out of game action for 20 days because of COVID, the Spartans returned to the court and lost by 30 at Rutgers before a 17-point loss at Ohio State.
But in Tuesday’s trip to No. 8 Iowa, there were signs things are starting to turn around, providing some optimism. The offense came to life and the Spartans were on the verge of beating the Hawkeyes, just missing out on tying the game in the final minute before Iowa got the 84-78 victory.
It was closer to what the Spartans expect, but still not enough to come out on top.
“It doesn’t do any good to play better,” Izzo said. “Sooner or later you’ve got to win games. And that's kind of exactly how I said it to the team in the locker room after. We did some good things. We still missed some good shots, we still missed a couple of good passes, we missed some free throws from guys that don't normally miss them.
“It doesn't take much and you win that game, but you got to find a way to win a game.”
The Spartans agree, but looking at the schedule, they think now is the perfect time to do so.
Nebraska (4-8, 0-5) comes to town on Saturday for its first game since missing the last five because of its own COVID issues. It’s the first of three straight home games followed by games at Purdue and at Indiana.
“I think this team feels like we can go on a run here,” Hauser said. “We’ve got three home games coming up, games that we think we can win.
“We’re figuring out how to win right now. We took a couple losses, but we control what we want to do with this season. We want to go on a run here and that's something that's on our minds.”
If that run comes and Michigan State plays its way into the NCAA Tournament, there’s a chance its performance this week will be the turning point. It started at Iowa on Tuesday and the goal now for the Spartans is to keep that momentum going against Nebraska and beyond.
“Just knowing we can compete with anybody,” Henry said of the loss at Iowa. “That's the main thing. Those other losses that we had were just ugly losses. You can’t ignore them and we can't have them, but we can play with anybody. We can compete, we can win. We should have won, I feel, a lot of those games if we do the things that I know we can do.
“But that being said, none of that matters if we don't. But I'm comfortable with how this team is moving and I'm just eager to get better every day.”
Nebraska at Michigan State
Tip-off: 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
TV/radio: BTN/WJR 760
Records: Nebraska 4-8, 0-5 Big Ten; Michigan State 8-7, 2-7
Outlook: This is the Cornhuskers’ first game after missing the last five because of COVID-19 issues in their program. …The Huskers have three players scoring in double figures, led by junior guard Teddy Allen, a West Virginia transfer who is averaging 18.4 points per game and is fifth in the Big Ten in scoring. Guard Dalano Banton, a Western Kentucky transfer, is averaging 12.6 points, 5.1 assists and leads the team with 6.8 rebounds per game. Trey McGowens, a Pitt transfer, is averaging 11.3 points per game.