Izzo believes No. 2 Spartans have to reach higher

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

East Lansing — Michigan State might be one of the hottest teams in the country — winners of eight of the last nine games and ranked No. 2 in the nation.

A No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament that a few weeks ago seemed far-fetched, at best, is now within the Spartans’ grasp.

But heading into Wednesday’s game at Rutgers, which is winless in the Big Ten, coach Tom Izzo is far from content with where his team stands with just two regular-season games left. The Spartans (24-5, 11-5 Big Ten) are at the top, or near the top, of almost every major statistical category in the conference.

Still, Izzo wonders how good Michigan State really is at this point.

“I am not an analytics guy as I have said a million times, but when I look at them I keep saying, ‘How?’ ” Izzo said. “It just doesn’t seem that way to me. … I am probably overanalyzing it. I think we are good. Sometimes we are up 20 and I say, ‘How?’

“I think we have a very solid team. I guess in the back of my mind is the struggle to beat Maryland or those butt-kicking Iowa games. We’ve had a couple of mental letdowns, coach included, at the end of a couple of games. So that is driving me to say that I am not that comfortable.”

The “struggle” to beat Maryland was a nine-point win, just the second time Michigan State time didn’t win by double-digits in Big Ten play. The “butt-kicking” games, of course, were early in conference play when the Hawkeyes were rolling.

Since then, however, things have been falling into place.

Denzel Valentine appears to be locking up Big Ten player of the year honors while fellow seniors Bryn Forbes and Matt Costello continue to produce. Freshman Deyonta Davis is also developing quickly while Eron Harris has become a defensive stopper.

So it’s not all bad for Izzo.

“What I do feel comfortable about is that I have a bunch of guys that have a common goal and will do anything to achieve that,” Izzo said. “The other stat that we are leading in is assists. How do you beat that? You have a star player that is playing for a lot personally and team-wise, and yet we are shooting the ball like we are. In that respect I am feeling good about where we are at the present point. Now we will see how we handle some success.”

They’ve handled it well so far, but the final week will be a different sort of challenge for the Spartans. Rutgers hasn’t won a game since late December when it knocked off UMass-Lowell of the America East.

But Corey Sanders is scoring 16.2 points a game, and the Scarlet Knights have some size on the interior that can be a challenge.

“They are another Big Ten team and the Big Ten is the best league in the nation,” Costello said. “So, we have to be ready. They’ve played against some of the best competition. They know how to play against good teams and they are scrappy, so we’ve got to do the best we can.”

Saturday, Michigan State closes the season with a visit from Ohio State, a team it just beat on the road by 19.

“It will be an interesting week,’ Izzo said. “We got to take care of business here and then we’ve got the task of trying to come back and play a team that you just played 10 days earlier and so, it’s going to be different challenges, exciting time for us as we’re playing pretty good right now, and we’ll see if we can sustain that and get a little better as we get to one-and-done time.

“But do I feel good about this team? I feel good about where we are right now. I feel good about how we practiced last week. I feel good about the focus I’m starting to see. And I feel really good about players taking criticism, taking coaching, whatever you want to call it and kind of learning and growing from it.”

mcharboneau@detroitnews.com

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Michigan State at Rutgers

Tip-off: 7 Wednesday, Rutgers Athletic Center, Piscataway, N.J.

TV/radio: Big Ten Network/WJR 760

Records: No. 2 Michigan State 24-5, 11-5 Big Ten; Rutgers 6-23, 0-16

Outlook: Michigan State and Rutgers have met only three times, with MSU winning all three. The Spartans beat the Scarlet Knights, 96-62, at the Breslin Center in January. … Rutgers enters the game without a conference victory. The last team to go winless in Big Ten play was Northwestern, 0-16 in 1999-2000.