There’s no doubt there was plenty of hair pulling and nail-biting over Michigan State’s loss to Indiana on Tuesday. Not because the Spartans lost as much as this team again showed how good it can be by almost beating the top team in the nation on a night it simply did not play well.
Is the Big Ten out of reach? Maybe. Well, probably at this point, certainly an outright title is. But first, understand this is no ordinary season in the Big Ten.
Yes, we’ve talked about it plenty this year, but it is worth repeating – the Big Ten is as tough as has been in more than a decade – at least. Michigan State is in the midst of playing four straight conference games against ranked opponents, but you likely won’t hear any other team feeling sorry for the Spartans. It’s simply life in the Big Ten this season.
For Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, the key now is keeping his team focused through the end. They’ve done an outstanding job of it to this point, but it becomes even more crucial now. And despite what Izzo calls “distractions” – specifically all the heat Derrick Nix has taken lately for appearing to call some players in the Big Ten overrated and then his involvement in “Groin-gate” – he is reminding his team it is still in a pretty good spot.
“This is the time of the year where I’m turning up the pressure on them,” he said this week. “We’re still pretty young and the leadership is still a question mark. It’s not great. So it’s harder to read it but I like the fact that they know they’re playing for something. I’ve always said this and some of you guys that have been here know this, the last two weeks of the season, you should be playing for something in your conference and now we are. That’s a big thing, you know.
“As we go through some of these things that become media issues, (Branden Dawson) said to me, you know, ‘Why us?’ I said, ‘Don’t say that.’ But I also said, ‘You know, we’re still playing for, right now, our fourth Big Ten championship in five years. You know, we’re still playing as a team that has a chance to be a top three or four seed, no matter what happens, for a chance to go to our third Final Four in five years somewhere down the line.’ That’s a lot to play for and people don’t like when you’re up there that high. I think it’s a privilege but they’ve got to learn it’s a privilege.”
So the loss stings, to be sure, but don’t let it linger, because there is no break. Teams must be peaking at this time of year, and at Michigan State, that has been the case more often than not.
This year can be no different and the Spartans have a chance to prove as much over the next couple of weeks.
This program has done it repeatedly over the years and odds are this year will be no different. The first indication comes Sunday.