MSU still has shot at Big Ten regular-season title

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News
Denzel Valentine and Tom Izzo will need some help from other teams if Michigan State is going to win the Big Ten regular-season title.

East Lansing — Before Thursday, it seemed Michigan State had accepted the fact a shot at claiming even a share of the Big Ten regular-season title was out of reach.

By the end of the night, however, the smallest glimmer of hope appeared to exist.

Michigan State had won for the sixth time in seven games, and earlier, Maryland lost to Big Ten cellar-dweller Minnesota. Combined with two losses in the last three games for Iowa, things have become jammed at the top of the Big Ten.

But Tom Izzo isn’t ready to get too worked up about it.

“So many teams have to lose,” Izzo said. “I mean, no one can lose two games a night. Somebody has got to beat somebody. If there’s upsets like tonight, that would be great if there could be three or four of those. Then I would see the crack.”

With four games left for the Spartans, there is little time to make up ground. At 9-5 in conference, Michigan State is two games behind Iowa and Indiana. Maryland has four losses while Purdue, Michigan, Ohio State and Wisconsin all have five losses.

It all means the door is open, even if slightly, for a lot of teams. Michigan State is in that group, and with four winnable games remaining — two against Ohio State, and one each against Penn State and Rutgers — it could finish 13-5 in the Big Ten.

And whether that is good enough to reach the top of the standings, the Spartans already have spent enough time kicking themselves for at least three losses. After getting rolled by Iowa twice, Michigan State also has one-point losses to Wisconsin, Nebraska and Purdue.

“Ohhhhh,” senior Denzel Valentine said, shaking his head. “Going back and thinking about the Nebraska game is key, and then giving that game up at Purdue and then Wisconsin the first time. If we win one of those games, we’re one down and playing for the Big Ten.

“You never know what can happen the next four games, it’s been so crazy. Three, four and five lose (Wednesday) night so we just got to do what we can do. Get this win and control what we can control.”

What Michigan State (22-5) can control is its play, something that has been improving the last couple weeks. Valentine continues to make his case for national player of the year, while the team’s defensive performance against Wisconsin was as good as it has been all year.

It’s that defense, Izzo believes, that will be the key down the stretch and in the postseason.

“I’ve just been focusing right now on this team getting better,” Izzo said. “It’s a time of year where you have to get better. And it’s a time of year where you don’t let the 3-point shot dictate your game. You let your rebounding and your defense dictate your game.”

Michigan State doesn’t play until Tuesday at Ohio State, so the Spartans have a chance to sit back and watch this weekend. Purdue travels to Indiana, Michigan heads to Maryland and Wisconsin looks to get back on track against Illinois, while Iowa is off.

Whatever happens the next few days, Izzo is keeping his focus on his team.

“I can honestly say that I’m not looking,” Izzo said. “I wasn’t jumping up and down when I heard the announcement that Maryland lost. There’s just too many teams that have to lose and we dug ourselves our own hole.

“Although, there has been times when we helped other teams, so maybe some teams will help us now.”