Izzo refuses to put Michigan State streak's burden on his players

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
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There was a different feeling around the Breslin Center on Friday, one that comes with a three-game winning streak that included two victories in three days over a pair of top-five teams in the country.

It’s also a feeling that comes when you’re a team that has been searching for answers all season, trying to push the right buttons but continuing to find frustration at nearly every turn.

Joshua Langford (1) of the Michigan State Spartans drives to the basket against Justin Ahrens (10) of the Ohio State Buckeyes in the first half.

For Michigan State, that frustration has finally started to wane as there is now a clear path to the NCAA Tournament, something that seemed absurd for the Spartans as recently as a week ago.

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“Everything’s a little better today,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said with a smile after practice on Friday.

And why wouldn’t it be? Michigan State is coming off Thursday night’s 71-67 victory over No. 4 Ohio State, a win that, along with Tuesday’s victory over No. 5 Illinois, has pumped life into the Spartans’ program as they prepare to continue a brutal final stretch to the season, beginning with a trip Sunday to take on Maryland.

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Suddenly, the NCAA Tournament prognosticators are talking about Michigan State. No longer are they cast aside as a team that is likely to see its 22-season tournament streak come to an end. Instead, the Spartans are right back in the picture.

Michigan State (13-9, 7-9 Big Ten) has jumped up to No. 68 in the NET rankings and now has five Quadrant 1 victories, one of only 15 teams in the country with that many. CBSsports.com bracketologist Jerry Palm has Michigan State in the field at this point as part of the First Four, while ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has the Spartans in the group of first four out, not in the tournament but in far better shape than they have been in months.

What it all comes with, though, is the chance over the next four games — Sunday at Maryland and at home Tuesday vs. Indiana before back-to-back games with Michigan to close the regular season — to solidify a spot and push Michigan State’s streak to 23 seasons and remain the third-longest active streak in the nation.

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Michigan State has been in this spot before, needing a late push to secure its spot. But nothing has ever been this daunting.

“First of all, it's never been anything like this,” Izzo said. “There's only been a couple times that we had to win some games down the stretch. Now, there were years we had to win games to win the Big Ten, but never anything like this, and never, ever, will you play four top-five teams in about a 10-day period, or whatever it is.”

So, the Hall of Fame coach has opted not to put that pressure on his team. Instead, as he has in the past, it’s been about playing better and not focusing on the “hellacious” schedule.

“That’s what I told this team,” Izzo said. “I said, ‘Don’t worry about streaks. Worry about putting yourself in a position for our team to get better. You get better and then let the chips fall where they may.’ That’s been the battle cry for me.”

It’s easy to say, but for a player, it can be tougher to have that approach. Ask the senior class in 2014 that ended the run that had seen every player that stuck around for four years under Izzo reaching the Final Four. It ended in the regional finals in a loss to Connecticut, and players like Keith Appling and Adreian Payne were crushed.

So, try as they might to block it out, this group doesn’t want the tournament streak to end.

“I mean, as a human, you're naturally going to think about it,” senior Joshua Langford said. “But you can't change it. The biggest thing is that we just constantly readjust our focus, realign our perspective on what's really at hand and what we need to be looking at. That’s taking it one game at a time and the one thing that coach has really emphasized is he talks about how streaks are meant to be broken.

“He’s not saying that he wants to break the streak, but the message is that it can't be about results, it has to be about the process and progressing and getting better each and every day. When you have that type of mindset, the results that you want to see will come.”

It’s happening later in the season than the Spartans hoped, but they’re coming now. And as tough as the final two weeks will be with six games, the mental toll is being considered as much as the physical one.

“We’ve got our work cut out, but I'm not going to worry about fatigue, because there's nothing I can do about it,” Izzo said. “I can just try to practice, tell them to get their rest, eat well, you know, all the things that we’ve got to do. But the mental fatigue, I'm not crawling in their brain. But I think we're in a good place.”

The Spartans will face Maryland without junior point guard Foster Loyer, who will miss his fourth straight game with a left shoulder injury. On Friday, Izzo indicated it’s still possible Loyer will have to opt for surgery soon and miss the rest of the season, though that hasn’t been determined.

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Meanwhile, Michigan State will try to contain Maryland (14-10, 8-9), which has won four in a row and has five Quad 1 wins of its own. Like Michigan State, it took the Terrapins some time to get rolling this season, but now they are.

For the Spartans, they hope their roll has only just begun.

“Timing is everything and you have to really kind of put it in perspective,” Langford said. “This isn’t a normal season, and to coach’s defense and even to our defense — not to make excuses — but we have just been trying to figure out our team a little bit. I think we really have found our niche. We’ve just kind of hit the right timing and for us and I think everything is clicking.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @mattcharboneau

Michigan State at Maryland

Tip-off: 2 p.m. Sunday, Xfinity Center, College Park, Md.

TV/radio: CBS/WJR 760

Records: Michigan State 13-9, 7-9 Big Ten; Maryland 14-10, 8-9

Outlook: Maryland junior Aaron Wiggins has scored at least 17 points in eight consecutive home games dating back to Jan. 7. … The Maryland defense has not allowed an opponent to score more than 61 points in seven of its last nine games. … According to the NCAA’s NET ranking system, Maryland has played the 5th-toughest schedule in the country.

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