EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) – Michigan State usually goes to the Big Ten tournament as a powerhouse, playing for positioning in the NCAA tournament.
Not this year.
The struggling Spartans, who began the season ranked No. 2, likely have to win at least a game in Indianapolis to earn a spot among the field of 68 after finishing .500 in the conference and winning just 17 games overall.
“The regular season is important, the Big Ten tournament is important, but the NCAA tournament is important,” coach Tom Izzo said Monday. “We’re starting ours a little earlier. We’re starting ours on Thursday.”
If Michigan State loses to Iowa in the first round of the Big Ten tournament on Thursday, its chances of being in the NCAA tournament are probably remote.
“We’re not going down there, trying to win one game and say, ‘Hey, if we just get one we’re in the tournament,’ because you don’t know what the committee is thinking,” forward Draymond Green said. “We can go down there and win three games, and still not get in.”
The seventh-seeded Spartans would play second-seeded Purdue in the conference quarterfinals with a win over 10th-seeded Iowa. Michigan State beat the Hawkeyes by 19 at home last week, but lost to them by 20 a month earlier on the road.
“We need to start jumping on teams instead of letting them jump on us,” guard Kalin Lucas said.
Michigan got off to a strong start against the cold-shooting Spartans on Saturday and went on to win 70-63, sweeping them in a two-game season series for the first time since 1997. Izzo was so angry after the game he was chewing gum during his news conference in Ann Arbor.
“I figured it would save me from grinding my teeth,” he said.
Izzo has had a lot to fret about over the last seven months, starting with not welcoming back guard Chris Allen back for his senior season after he started 27 games last year for a team that repeated as Big Ten champions and Final Four participants.
Then, several players struggled to regain their form after offseason surgeries. Midway through the season, guard Korie Lucious was kicked off the team. Senior Durrell Summers has failed to consistently contribute.
Izzo said if he had a time machine, he could’ve tried to come up with different ways to reach Allen and Lucious before each made one too many mistakes.
“I would probably look for signs on things that are heading south a little bit earlier and try to correct them earlier,” he said.
Allen transferred to Iowa State and Lucious plans to join him there. The Spartans simply haven’t been able to make up for losing two of their best shooters.
“There were times Saturday that it was like we were playing 3 on 5,” Izzo said.
However, he insisted he’s excited about the Big Ten tournament because he believes there are enough good players with experience on the team to make something happen.
Michigan State forward Delvon Roe acknowledged there’s different feeling surrounding the team than it had the past two years when the team played in the conference tournament after winning the regular-season title and before going on to the Final Four.
“Usually, we’re playing for seeding,” Roe said. “This time, we know we’re not guaranteed a spot at all. It’s a good thing they expanded the field.”
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