There was a point in mid-January when Michigan State climbed to No. 1 in the polls and sat atop the Big Ten standings.
In one week, over the course of three games, things changed dramatically. Or so it seemed.
A Sunday loss at Ohio State sent the Spartans down in the rankings. A midweek escape at home against abysmal Rutgers added more concerns. And then Michigan came to Breslin Center and left with a lot more questions about MSU.
To everyone but Tom Izzo.
“I would feel bad, as much as this team has given this place, that anybody would jump off the bandwagon,” Izzo said after the 82-72 loss to the Wolverines. “They’ve lost a couple of games. Big deal.”
Turns out, it wasn’t a big deal at all.
The Spartans have ripped off 12 straight wins since that Jan. 13 defeat to finish 16-2 in the conference and pull away to Izzo’s third outright Big Ten championship in 23 years, completing it Sunday with a win at Wisconsin. They are now No. 2 in both the USA Today Coaches Poll and the AP Top 25, sitting with the program’s best 31-game start at 28-3.
And that landed MSU the No. 1 seed and a double-bye in this week’s Big Ten Tournament. The Spartans will open play at noon Friday at Madison Square Garden in New York against the winner of Thursday’s game between No. 8 seed Maryland and No. 9 seed Wisconsin.
But the potential exists for another matchup with the Wolverines, the last team to beat the Spartans. Michigan got the No. 5 seed and will get the winner of Wednesday’s game between No. 12 seed Iowa and No. 13 seed Illinois.
MSU would need one win and the Wolverines two for a semifinal meeting Saturday. Izzo on Monday praised coach John Beilein’s team as both prepare for the first Big Ten Tournament ever in New York.
“Right now, Michigan and Nebraska are probably playing as good as anybody,” Izzo said on a teleconference. “It should make for a great tournament, one where I’m hoping where we’ll end up with at least five teams in (the NCAAs). So we’re excited. The kids I think are excited to go to Madison Square Garden. And it’s gonna be an interesting tournament.”
Izzo is 11-8 against the Wolverines in Beilein’s 11 seasons at Michigan.
The 13th-ranked Wolverines (24-7, 13-5) have won five straight and seven of their last eight. Their win over No. 14 Ohio State on Feb. 8 essentially catapulted MSU to the outright championship.
Michigan beat Iowa twice this season and Illinois once. Both need to win the conference tournament to get a spot in the NCAAs, while the Wolverines are essentially a lock to make Beilein’s eighth NCAA appearance in 12 seasons and the program’s third straight berth.
If MSU and Michigan do meet in Saturday’s semifinals, one team will go home early and have a long rest ahead before the NCAA tournament. The Big Ten condensed its schedule this season to permit taking the conference tourney to Madison Square Garden. The entire Big Ten will have next week off before the NCAA selection show March 11.
“It is different when you’re used to the other format, but we’ll still find a way,” Beilein said on a conference call Monday. “And obviously, while we’re waiting to be selected. We’re not selected yet. … I can't say I'm either way, I'm just dealing with it the best I can. I’m not gonna say I’m in favor or against it. I’m usually always in favor of the cards I’m dealt.”
A year ago, after a frightening plane accident nearly led Michigan to abandon a trip to Washington, the Wolverines captured Beilein’s first Big Ten Tournament title with four wins.
MSU and Michigan have only met once in the first 20 years of the Big Ten Tournament, in the 2014 championship game in Indianapolis. The Spartans won, 69-55, for the fourth of Izzo’s five league tourney titles.
“Who gets hot? Last year, Michigan got hot and ran right through it,” Izzo said. “That’s the one advantage of the tournament. When they started it however many years ago, that you’re always playing for something at the end of the year.”
Contact Chris Solari: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @chrissolari.
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