'It's been a crazy year': Spartans look to make final push in race to Big Ten tourney

Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News on

Published in Basketball

EAST LANSING, Mich. — Tom Izzo summed things up as best as he could.

“It’s been a crazy year in college basketball,” the Michigan State coach said Thursday. “And it’s been a real crazy year in the Big Ten.”

It’s a fair assessment of a season that is lacking any truly elite teams and the Big Ten reflects that as well as any conference. Purdue is the No. 1 team in the country and has avoided any losing skids, but whether the Boilermakers are the clear-cut best team out there is up for debate.

And while they have obviously separated themselves in the Big Ten, the rest of the conference has become a jumble of teams, some exceeding expectations and others failing to meet them. The result is 11 teams all within three games of each other in the conference standings.

“The ironic part is we’re, in the loss column, only one game out of second place,” Izzo said. “Unfortunately, we’re only one game out of 11th. I’ve never, ever in my life, seen the league like this. It’s an amazing deal and, ironically, the two teams that are 11 and 12 right now were ranked at (different times) of the year, that’s Wisconsin and Ohio State.”

The rankings are one thing, but the analytics seem just as confused with what’s happening in the Big Ten. Ohio State, which is in 12th place and sits at 3-7 in conference play, still checks in at No. 27 in the rankings, fifth among Big Ten teams. And Northwestern, which is tied for second place with Rutgers and Illinois, checks in at No. 54 on Kenpom.

There’s plenty of reasons, based on the numbers, to explain some of those rankings. But the bottom line is, the race for byes in the Big Ten tournament and spots in the NCAA Tournament are up for grabs, and at this point, it’s hard to figure out which teams will emerge when things are all said and done.

For Michigan State (14-8, 6-5 Big Ten), the good news is the tough part of the schedule has essentially passed. After facing Rutgers on Saturday at Madison Square Garden in New York, the Spartans will have eight games remaining — four at home and four on the road.

The plan is to hold serve at home — they’ll host Maryland, Minnesota, Indiana and Ohio State — while seeing if they can pick off a game or two on the road with trips to Ohio State, Michigan, Iowa and Nebraska.


It’s all easier said than done, but Michigan State finds itself on the right path to safely land in the NCAA Tournament for the 25th straight season. An extra win or two could substantially improve its seeding while potentially leading to a double-bye in the Big Ten tournament.

Of course, to get there, Michigan State will have to rebound from a 2-4 stretch over the last six games. Getting Malik Hall back to 100% health is a big part of that.

“Malik has made some more significant progress where he’ll practice full now,” Izzo said after the senior had been limited since returning two games ago after missing 11 of the previous 16 games with a stress reaction injury in his left foot.

With Hall back, it gives the Spartans not only another scoring option, but it allows them to defend in multiple ways, something they were unable to do as much with Hall out of the lineup.

“I’m not changing the (starting) lineup yet, but I'd like to get Malik back in the lineup,” Izzo said. “Now we’ve got to make sure he can practice all the time and is ready to go. He had a little time off (Wednesday), but he’s supposed to go full today. I mean, he’s not 100% yet. And that's the other thing, because of what happened last time, we’re just kind of biding time here with it.

“What I think we can do more (with Hall) is we can run more because we have a little more depth. And I think we'll rebound better because we’ll have a little more size. Sometimes we can post him, which hopefully gets us to the free-throw line a little bit more. And what I'm learning is what I really missed with Malik is he is really good putting the ball on the floor and he's a really good passer. So I think that opens some things up too.”

If those things all come together for the Spartans, it could mean a final push that sees them finish in the top four in the conference, something that is short of a Big Ten title they strive for, but not bad considering the way the season has played out.

“The next couple of weeks it will start separating as we get into the second half of the Big Ten,” Izzo said. “I’m excited and looking forward to it because I do think by Saturday or next week our team will be not only all back but all back and healthy with some time to practice together. Sol it’s an exciting time for us but also nerve-wracking because of how good the league is.”

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