Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo has an unquestioned solid history of preparing his teams for the college basketball postseason. A national championship in 2000 and a total of five Final Four appearances make it hard to second-guess anything Izzo does or anything the Spartans have accomplished during his tremendous tenure. But Sunday’s 69-67 loss at Ohio State does raise questions about just how good this year’s Michigan State team really is.
To hear national experts tell it, the Spartans are as good as anyone. On ESPN this weekend, Jay Bilas said that if every team in the tournament played its best, Michigan State would win the national championship. And what the Spartans haven’t been for most of the season is at full strength. Only two players, Denzel Valentine and Gavin Schilling, have played all 30 games for Michigan State this season. Adreian Payne (17.8 points per game, 7.5 rebounds) has missed seven games. Gary Harris and Keith Appling, who are the Spartans’ other players to average double figures in scoring this season, have both missed three games.
All five of those players were involved in Sunday’s game at Ohio State. Payne scored 23 points and grabbed eight rebounds. Harris added 12 points, five rebounds and four assists. Yet the Spartans were unable to overcome the Buckeyes, who needed the win just to finish 10-8 in the Big 10. The loss leaves Michigan State 12-6 for the conference slate — which by all means is a respectable record in what is perennially one of the nation’s best conferences. Michigan State will finish no worse than third in the final Big 10 standings, depending on how Wisconsin (12-5 Big Ten) does later Sunday at resurgent Nebraska.
Michigan State is 23-8 overall, a record perhaps a bit underwhelming compared to what most thought of the Spartans had they been at full strength. And it’s not as if this week was a total loss, since Michigan State beat No. 24 Iowa earlier this week. But in the Big 10, the Spartans lost to bitter rival Michigan twice and suffered defeats at Wisconsin and Ohio State. More troubling for the Spartans, however, is the fact they lost at home to both Nebraska (18-11, 10-7) and Illinois (18-13, 7-11). The Spartans won’t be favorites in the upcoming Big 10 Tournament, but they are going to need to put together a strong performance in that event to secure a very high seed in the NCAA Tournament and have the chance to make yet another Final Four.
Nationally, Michigan State suffered a home loss to North Carolina which doesn’t look as bad now in light of the Tar Heels’ recent winning streak, but at that time, North Carolina was still very inconsistent and a team Michigan State should have defeated. The Spartans also beat then-No. 1 Kentucky, but we’ve seen as the season has gone on that the Wildcats are not a factor nationally. Michigan State also lost a rare late-season non-conference game to Georgetown (17-13).
At their best, Michigan State is a team you can probably pencil into the Elite Eight if you are filling out March Madness brackets. But be careful. Some of the Spartans’ losses this season are hard to explain, and if they are handed a tricky matchup in the round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament, things could get dicey for Michigan State. A run to at least the final of the Big 10 Tournament next weekend would do well to remind everyone that the Spartans are the strong team just about everyone thought they were prior to the beginning of the season.