Amazing how quickly things can change in a little more than a week.
For Michigan State, things couldn’t have gone a whole lot better. Just eight days ago, as the Spartans were getting set to host Purdue in a top-five matchup, the prospects of winning a Big Ten title weren’t great.
At that time, Michigan State was a game behind both Purdue and Ohio State, and the Buckeyes held the tiebreaker thanks to a head-to-head win back in early January. So, the Spartans were essentially two games back in the race to win an outright championship. Even after beating Purdue, the same scenario was in place when it came to catching Ohio State.
However, with a week to go in the regular season and just two games to play, No. 2 Michigan State has a full game lead over Ohio State, which lost twice this week — at Penn State on Thursday and at Michigan on Sunday. Combined with Michigan State’s victories at Minnesota and Northwestern and the Spartans are now in control.
Early in the week, as Michigan State prepared to play at Northwestern, coach Tom Izzo lamented the fact the Spartans needed some help in the fight for a conference championship.
“I’m not pulling against or for anybody,” Izzo said. “I’d be an idiot not to hope somehow Ohio State loses another game if we keep winning. But at the same time that’s the problem when destiny is not in your own hands.”
That control is now firmly in Michigan State’s hands as Ohio State lost twice while Purdue lost its third straight. A win Tuesday at home against Illinois would clinch at least a share of the Big Ten title for the first time since 2012 while a win Tuesday followed by a win Sunday at Wisconsin would give Michigan State its first outright championship since 2009.
The Spartans (26-3, 14-2 Big Ten) put themselves in this position by completing the largest comeback in Big Ten history on Saturday when it erased a 27-point deficit to beat Northwestern, 65-60. It was a position the Spartans haven’t been in this season.
Early in the second half, the Spartans hadn’t shown any signs a comeback was looming, and to top it off, two of its best players were having trouble staying on the floor. Both Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. were battling foul trouble while Bridges had made just one shot and turned the ball over four times.
The Spartans’ star was out of sorts and the big freshman was relegated to cheerleader for long stretches. In other words, if Michigan State was gonna rally, it was gonna need to do so without a couple of its heavy hitters chipping in.
So, a team that entered the season with depth it hasn’t had in recent seasons, turned to its bench. It’s something the Spartans have done often this season, most notably in the win over Purdue last weekend when senior Gavin Schilling and junior Kenny Goins played huge roles.
This time, it was Goins again defending Northwestern’s Vic Law and freshman Xavier Tillman playing our energy-filled minutes. It was Matt McQuaid knocking away an entry pass then later burying a 3 from the wing to bring Michigan State to within seven.
“We just kept running different people in there,” Izzo said. “We were playing some bizarre lineups ourselves, but that’s one of our plusses. We have some depth. Kenny Goins did come in and Miles was in foul trouble. Jaren was in a little bit of foul trouble and we brought some guys in. Xavier Tillman, in that stretch, played awfully well. McQuaid made a couple big shots.”
It all allowed time for the stars to shine. While Cassius Winston was heating up from 3-point range, scoring 13 points in the second half, and Nick Ward was bringing defensive energy to match his offense, Bridges and Jackson returned late to make their own big plays.
Bridges had a baseline jumper during Michigan State’s decisive 24-0 run and made four free throws in the final minute while Jackson’s three-point play gave the Spartans their first lead at 56-53.
“A lot,” Izzo said when asked what the depth says about his team. “But you can argue our two best players, Miles and Jaren, didn’t have a stellar game. And yet, you look at Miles when we put him back in with three minutes left he had that baseline jumper and hit four free throws. It says a lot about our team but a lot about Miles, too.”
And now that team is closing in on a Big Ten championship. Bridges will, no doubt, bounce back, but the Spartans know they can count on just about anyone.
“What this team appreciates is they really don’t care who is playing, who wasn’t playing,” Izzo said. “They care more about wining and that’s refreshing.”