New York — There was a time not too long ago some fans believed Tom Izzo didn’t care about the Big Ten tournament.
Of course, that feeling started to wane as Michigan State moved past several years of seeming indifference to the annual event — including four one-and-done showings — by winning it in 2012, 2014 and 2016 while reaching the championship game in 2015 before losing in overtime.
So, yeah, winning matters, even if Izzo still thinks the regular-season title the Spartans wrapped up last week is a better gauge of the conference’s best team.
“We are getting to the point where it’s a little like the ACC and the Big East where the conference tournament means more than the regular season,” Izzo said. “And in all fairness, the regular season with an 18-game schedule, to persevere through that is probably more difficult than the conference tournament. But it seems like people put more on the conference tournament, so I’ll adjust and do whatever I want.”
What he wants is for the Spartans to continue to carry the momentum they’ve built over the last half of the Big Ten season. Winners of 12 straight games heading into Friday’s quarterfinal matchup with Wisconsin — the Badgers knocked off 8-seed Maryland on Thursday — Michigan State hasn’t dropped a game since mid-January.
But winning the regular-season championship hasn’t always guaranteed success in the conference tournament.
Since the tournament began in 1998, seven teams have followed an outright regular-season championship with one in the tournament, including Michigan State in 1999 and 2000. Twice a team that shared the regular-season title won the tournament crown with the Spartans pulling it off in 2012.
“There haven’t been many teams that have won the regular season outright and the conference tournament,” Izzo said. “That’s our goal right now.”
While a title this week at Madison Square Garden wouldn’t produce another banner for the Breslin Center —Michigan State only raises banners for regular-season championships — it doesn’t mean any less to the players who see this as just the next step, the next item to check off the to-do list.
“We just want to keep the momentum going,” sophomore guard Cassius Winston said. “We want to keep getting better as a team. And who doesn’t want more trophies? We want every trophy we can get this year and we feel like we have the capability of doing that.”
Does that mean the season is hinging on what happens over the next three days? Hardly.
Success, or lack thereof, has never been a true indicator of what Michigan State will do in the NCAA Tournament. It sure did in 1999 and 2000, when conference tournament titles led to two straight Final Four appearances, including the national championship in 2000. But Michigan State didn’t win a game in the 2001 Big Ten tournament before making the Final Four a third consecutive season.
The same thing happened in 2005 while the Spartans were a combined 1-2 in the Big Ten tournament in 2009 and 2010, two more Final Four seasons that included a trip to the 2009 national title game in Detroit.
And after the last three Big Ten tournament championships, Michigan State did no better than reaching the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament, including the first-round loss to Middle Tennessee State in 2016.
“We’ll go enjoy the trip,” Izzo said. “We’ll get there, figure out how to get up early in the morning and play early, watch the second game to figure out who we’re playing. And if we win, we’ve got some time to do that. If we don’t we’re coming home.”
To avoid an early exit, Michigan State must pull off a type of doubleheader sweep. It faced Wisconsin in the regular-season finale on Sunday, winning in Madison to lock up the outright championship.
The Badgers said that they were looking forward to a rematch in New York, and after holding off Maryland on Thursday, that’s exactly what they’ll get.
“We just played these guys and we went toe-to-toe with them, punch-for-punch,” Wisconsin junior Khalil Iverson said. “I personally figure we just have to string together an entire game for 40 minutes and just staying toe-to-toe with them like we did last game. I know we'll be ready for them.”
Wisconsin hung around thanks to a career-high 30 points from freshman guard Brad Davison while it held Michigan State’s Miles Bridges to just 10 points on 3-for-15 shooting.
However, the Badgers are expecting more from the Spartans this time.
“We got him to miss some shots,” Wisconsin coach Greg Gard said of Bridges. “But they had (Nick) Ward doing a lot of good things inside. (Jaren) Jackson was a handful and really affected the game defensively. And I think the one that nobody talks about as much is what the evolution and growth of Cassius Winston, how he's evolved and that was him going 6-for-6 from three and hitting some tough shots. That was the difference.
“But you can't focus just on one guy with that team.”
Wisconsin vs. No. 2 Michigan State
Tip-off: Noon Friday, Madison Square Garden, New York
TV/radio: BTN/WJR 760
Records: Wisconsin 16-17; Michigan State 28-3
Outlook: The teams played on Sunday with Michigan State winning on the road to clinch the outright conference championship. … The Spartans have played the Badgers more than any other team in the conference tournament, compiling a 4-4 record. The last time the teams met, Wisconsin beat MSU, 80-69, in overtime of the 2015 championship game. … MSU’s last win against Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament was in 20014, an 83-75 win in the semifinals.