Regular-season title has meaning for Izzo, Spartans

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — It’s been almost four years since Michigan State last won a share of the Big Ten regular-season championship, and admittedly, it’s on the minds of the Spartans this week.

With just two games left — Wednesday at Rutgers and at home Saturday against Ohio State — No. 2 Michigan State is still a full two games behind first-place Indiana, caught in the four-team logjam that is second place.

On Monday, coach Tom Izzo talked about the crack being there for the Spartans to slide in and grab a share, but again said it was a “longshot.”

Still, it’s something Izzo and his team would love to add to a resume that is looking more and more each day like that of a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. They realize they missed out on their chance to avoid the predicament they’re in, losing three games by one point each. However, even the chance it could still happen is enough for them to play the final two games as if they were for all the marbles.

“It’s huge because that’s another championship you’re striving for all year, something you work for all year,” senior Matt Costello said. “I’ve never won a regular-season (championship). So it’s a big deal to me.”

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While it means something to the Spartans, how much weight a regular-season title still holds is certainly up for debate.

As conferences continue to grow, it has become almost impossible to have a balanced schedule, something that was typically a clear indicator of the best team. In the Big Ten, a true round-robin schedule hasn’t happened since 1991-92. By the next season, Penn State had joined and the unbalanced schedule began.

It wasn’t perfect in those days, but it’s grown even more unbalanced since the Big Ten went to 14 teams two seasons ago with the addition of Rutgers and Maryland. Now, conference teams play home and away with just five of the other 13 teams. Four teams play just at home and four more face each other only on the road.

For Izzo, however, the regular-season title will always mean more than winning the conference tournament, even if it is tough to find much balance.

“The problem is, the 18-game grind has been altered because of who you play once, who you play twice, where you play them and all those things,” Izzo said. “So it’s hard to feel quite the same about it. But it’s still a heck of an accomplishment. I mean for Indiana to be (in first place), two games up on everybody, that’s still a hell of an accomplishment.”

What Michigan State has been able to do over the past few years is have success in the conference tournament. In 2012, when the Spartans shared the regular-season title, they beat Ohio State in the tournament. Two years later, they handled Michigan in the tournament title game and last year took Wisconsin to overtime before falling.

Winning there — this season’s Big Ten tournament is back in Indianapolis — might be a bit of a consolation, but the Spartans want championships, regardless of what kind.

“With these last two games coming up, we can’t control it so we have to do our part and win these last two games,” senior Denzel Valentine said. “Hopefully we win (a share) but if we don’t we’ll go win a Big Ten (tournament) championship.

“(The regular season is bigger) because it’s over a longer period of time. But at the same time, a championship is a championship.”

What happens over the next two weeks doesn’t necessarily translate into NCAA Tournament success, something that remains the ultimate goal at Michigan State.

Last season, Wisconsin won both the regular season and tournament title and reached the national championship game before losing to Duke. The previous two seasons, however, the regular season champion didn’t reach the Final Four — Michigan made the Elite Eight in 2014 and Indiana the Sweet 16 in 2013.

Ohio State, Michigan State and Michigan shared the title in 2012 with the Buckeyes reaching the Final Four. Michigan State won the conference tournament title but lost in the Sweet 16 and Michigan didn’t win a game in the NCAA Tournament.

Still, earning a trophy over the next two weeks will be priority No. 1.

For Izzo, however, it will always mean a little more in the regular season. He’s won seven Big Ten titles and four tournament championships, and he’ll always feel differently about the regular season.

“Well it’s still the same to me, because I guess I’ve been here through the times when it really did matter,” Izzo said. “Has some of the luster been taken away? I don’t think so, because I still would rather accomplish something over 18 games than over three.

“So I still think it’s bigger. If you look at the ACC, if you look at what the Big East used to be, it seems the tournament became bigger than the regular season.

“I’m not sure I’ll ever feel that way, just because you’ve got to be on your game so many games to accomplish that.”