East Lansing – Believe it or not, the stretch drive in the college basketball regular season is quickly approaching.
With just 10 games remaining in Big Ten play, the race for the conference championship is starting to take shape with Iowa and Indiana still unbeaten. For Michigan State, the hope is it has overcome its issues as Saturday’s victory over Maryland ended a three-game skid.
And while four conference losses might be too much to overcome to climb back into the hunt, the Spartans at least feel like they’re a lot closer to the team that opened the season with 13 straight wins than the one that struggled ahead of the Maryland game.
“Getting our identity back was a big thing,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said on Monday. “We still have to defend, we got to rebound and we got to run. We held (Maryland) to 40 percent (shooting) and they’d been shooting 50 percent. We got 17 offensive rebounds, getting a lot defensive rebounds and getting 18 points off of our fast break.
“I think mission accomplished on that given night.”
Getting that sort of effort moving forward will be the key as No. 12 Michigan State travels to Northwestern on Thursday before hosting Rutgers on Sunday.
It will mean matching the energy the Spartans had against Maryland, a game that amounted to a must-win against a top-10 team.
“The part that is a concern for me: Are we gonna play with the same emotion?” Izzo said. “Because the game the other night I think the focus was there, I thought the crowd was there and we just played better.
“So we’re making some progress. Not nearly where we need to be, but we’re making some progress.”
The clear progress for Michigan State has been on the defensive end of the court.
Getting Bryn Forbes to break out of his shooting slump and having Denzel Valentine close to 100 percent helps, but returning to a tough, physical team that makes it tough to score and controls the glass was the focus.
Izzo admitted on Monday that he was pushing for too much when his team was ranked No. 1 in the country.
“When you’re ranked No. 1 or 2 in the country, you start trying to stop everything,” Izzo said. “We have been a team all along that semi-cheated. If we’re going to take away dribble penetration, we’re going to give up a couple of threes. If we want to take away a good post game, we might give up something. If we want to take away a good 3-point game, we might give up something in the post.
“I think I was trying to be too perfect.”
Against Maryland, the focus was to stop dribble penetration from Melo Trimble. He scored 24, but the Spartans made it difficult for him.
Continuing that effort is the new focus for a team that expects to make a push in the Big Ten race.
“Critical week, yeah, because we let a game or two get away from us,” Izzo said. “But every game’s gonna be a critical game because you’re not only in the middle of the Big Ten season, but you’re getting down to the last half of the season and into tournament play.
“So I look at it more as we need to be improving every game now. We can’t have two steps forward, one step back. We can have baby steps forward, but hopefully you’re moving forward every game now, in some way, shape or form.”
Senior center Matt Costello watched most of practice Monday as he allowed his sprained left ankle to heal. It didn’t slow him on Saturday’s win over Maryland and Costello said the ankle has been responding well, but the training staff and coaches are being cautious.
“I wanted to practice today and was ready to practice but coach said just to chill out,” Costello said. “I’m not sure what exactly I’ll be doing (before Thursday’s game), but I’m ready to go.”
Costello scored 15 points, had 12 rebounds and three blocks while playing 32 minutes on Saturday. That came just three days after he hurt the ankle in a loss to Nebraska.