Spartans in front, but title up for grabs
Tom Izzo isn’t ready to celebrate.
“Not even a little bit,” Izzo said Monday.
The sixth-ranked Spartans aren’t comfortable with only a one-game lead over the eighth-ranked Buckeyes and No. 11 Michigan with four games left in the regular season, potentially setting up a fantastic finish in the conference race.
“To be in first place means nothing at this point in the season,” Michigan State’s do-it-all forward Draymond Green said.
No. 16 Wisconsin is just two games behind Michigan State, and 23rd-ranked Indiana is lurking close enough to have a chance to rally for at least a piece of the Big Ten title if the Spartans have a setback.
“There’s still four or five teams that have a definite shot at winning it,” Izzo said.
Who and where the contenders play may prove to be pivotal.
Michigan State might have the toughest road to claim its third Big Ten championship in four seasons, playing at Minnesota on Wednesday night before hosting Nebraska, traveling to play Indiana and closing the regular season March 4 at home against the Buckeyes.
“I think we have the toughest four games left,” Izzo said. “With Minnesota, playing for their playoff lives; and Indiana down there, I think they’ve lost one game at home; the trap game with Nebraska in between and Ohio State at the end.
“I don’t feel very comfortable—and I’m not paranoid about it.”
Izzo, though, wouldn’t have believed it if he was told a few months ago that his team—unranked in The Associated Press’ preseason poll—would be alone in first place with two weeks left.
“I am pleasingly surprised at how we’ve been defensively and offensively and even rebounding,” he said.
In conference games, Michigan State leads the Big Ten in field-goal percentage on offense and defense and its rebounding margin overall ranks No. 3 in the nation.
The two-time defending Big Ten champion Buckeyes need to bounce back from losing Saturday night at Michigan, a week after losing on their home court to Michigan State, to have a shot at a three-peat.
Ohio State hosts Illinois, which has lost five straight and eight of nine to put Bruce Weber’s future in doubt, and Wisconsin this week before hitting the road to face Northwestern and Michigan State.
Buckeyes coach Thad Matta said he is trying to get his players ready to roll after what he called a “tough loss” against the Wolverines.
“As we go into Tuesday’s game, it’ll be a test,” Matta said. “As a coach as crazy as it sounds, you’re excited to see how your guys respond.”
Michigan has won three straight to get in a position to possibly win its first Big Ten title since 1986—just before senior guard Stu Douglass had his 4th birthday—with what appears to be a favorable schedule.
The Wolverines, who have earned their highest ranking in the AP poll since Dec. 31, 1996, are the only team among the Big Ten’s top five without a game left against a ranked opponent. They play at Northwestern on Tuesday night, host Purdue on Saturday night, and finish the regular season on the road against Illinois and Penn State.
“We don’t play Michigan State or Ohio State or the top of the Big Ten to win it,” Douglass said. “We play some teams that you got to stay mentally focused and game plan for, especially a team like Northwestern. We know we can’t relax with their system.”
Wisconsin, which won the Big Ten title outright in 2008, closes the regular season at Iowa and Ohio State before returning home to play Minnesota and Illinois.
Indiana has just three games left against Big Ten teams, playing at Minnesota and hosting Michigan State and Purdue with longshot hopes of coming back from the pack to share part of the Big Ten title for the first time since it was in a four-way tie with Ohio State, Wisconsin and Illinois a decade ago.
Michigan coach John Beilein insisted he hasn’t looked at who the contenders play, but acknowledge his program has a chance to end its Big Ten title drought.
“If we’re in that mix this time of the year, that’s good,” Beilein said. “I haven’t done any math on anything in regards to that, but I know someone is going to have to win road games and protect their home because it is so tight at the top.”