MSU's Tom Izzo turns attention away from NCAA streak, back to winning every game possible

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Being in contention, that’s what matters to Tom Izzo.

The Michigan State coach wants his team playing big games down the stretch, because that means the Spartans are in the mix for championships, whether it’s the Big Ten title, the conference tournament championship or another run to the Final Four.

That’s been the norm for the bulk of Izzo’s 26 years at the helm for the Spartans. They’ve won 10 regular-season championships in the Big Ten, including at least a share in each of the last three seasons. They’ve also won six conference tournament titles, been to eight Final Fours and won a national championship.

Michigan State's Joshua Langford attacks the basket with Iowa's Jack Nunge defending in the second half.

But there are no championships in sight for Michigan State as it prepares for Tuesday night’s matchup with Purdue in West Lafayette, Indiana. The 30-point loss at home to Iowa on Saturday was just the latest reminder this season has hardly gone the way the Spartans expected.

The 6-0 start in nonconference play proved fairly misleading as Michigan State (10-8, 4-8 Big Ten) lost its first three conference games, then later endured a four-game skid that wrapped around a 20-day COVID-19 break.

Wins over Nebraska and Penn State brought some optimism, but the Iowa “ambush” settled Michigan State back to the reality that it needs a remarkable turnaround just to be on the NCAA Tournament bubble, beginning this week with a trip through Indiana, facing the Boilermakers on Tuesday and the Hoosiers on Saturday.

“You’re kind of living day-by-day and game-by-game,” Izzo said Monday.

There are certainly positive ways to look at the final eight games — only six are scheduled as Michigan State awaits news on when second meetings with Indiana and Michigan might be made up — including the fact that the Big Ten is so good, just about any victory is a good one. But when you need multiple wins — MSU would need to go at least .500 over the final eight games for even a chance — it becomes tougher to try and “get well,” as Izzo described it.

“There were times (in past seasons) where there were three or four teams (that weren’t as good) and you were playing most of them twice,” Izzo said. “That was seven or eight wins you were going to get. I don't think many people are counting any wins this year.”

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Michigan State thought it was counting a win the last time it played Purdue back on Jan. 8. The Spartans held a 17-point lead early in the second half only to start turning the ball over while failing to make a handful of critical plays in the final five minutes. The Boilermakers took advantage and pulled out the one-point victory.

That was loss No. 1 in the four-game skid for the Spartans, setting them along the path they’re currently on, one that could likely mean Michigan State’s NCAA Tournament streak ends at 22, the third-longest active streak in the nation behind Kansas (30) and Duke (24).

“We're just going to keep trying to win as many games as we can,” said Izzo, “and play better and get better. We’ve got to play better at Purdue and so that's got to be right now. Every streak here since the day I came here means something to me. Every win means something to me, but I don't look at success or failure on streaks, I look at consistency over years.”

That consistency has certainly taken a dip this season, and it’s not lost on Izzo.

“We all need a reality check,” Izzo admitted.

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But it’s not lost on the players, either. They understand, as much as anyone, the ramifications their play can have on the overall direction of the program.

Still, they’re not ready to look at the numbers and admit there’s no path to pulling out of this.

“We’re knowledgeable of what's going on and what we need to do,” sophomore Malik Hall said. “I think it's more so we just know that we have to play to the best of our ability, and if we do that, we know we can make the tournament and we can do all the things that we need to do to be in the right spot by the end of the year.”

It begins Tuesday at Purdue against a team Michigan State didn’t do what it needed to the last time they played. The Spartans didn’t make free throws down the stretch, didn’t rebound the ball and didn’t take care of it, either. It all led to a loss that seems to have summed up Michigan State’s season.

But Izzo can point to at least some years past when a late rally led to an NCAA berth. It happened when Miles Bridges was a freshman and Michigan State won six of eight in February to lock up a bid.

Izzo heard from his former star a few weeks ago who reminded his coach they’d been in this spot before. Of course, that team in 2017 was loaded with talent, including current senior Joshua Langford.

It’s hard to predict a furious finish for this Michigan State team. It’s been an odd season, to be sure, and one that hasn’t happened often for the Spartans. So, Izzo plans to attack it the only way he knows how.

“I’m ready to accept that I’ve got to  fight my tail off the last eight games,” Izzo said. “This just hasn't been the norm here and that's a good thing. I'm going to keep looking at it as a good thing and try to get it done.”

More: MSU's Rocket Watts, Foster Loyer ailing, but expected to play vs. Purdue

Michigan State at Purdue

Tip-off: 7 Tuesday, Mackey Arena, West Lafayette, Ind.

TV/radio: ESPN/760

Records: Michigan State 10-8, 4-8 Big Ten; Purdue 13-8, 8-6

Outlook: The Boilermakers have won three in a row over the Spartans, including three straight at Mackey Arena. … Junior Trevion Williams scored 24 second-half points in the first meeting this season and leads the Boilermakers, averaging 15.8 points and 9.6 rebounds a game while handing out 2.1 assists. … Purdue has won four games this year when trailing by 11 or more points, including the first meeting with Michigan State when it was behind by 17 in the second half.

Twitter: @mattcharboneau