LARRY LAGE, AP Sports Writer
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — Michigan State’s up-and-down team might be peaking at just the right time.
The Spartans started the season ranked second and rose to No. 1 for three weeks. They tumbled toward the bottom of the Top 25 before bouncing back with an impressive three-win stretch to earn the Big Ten tournament championship.
“There are people around here that pronounced us dead a week ago,” coach Tom Izzo said. “All of a sudden we went from the ugly duckling to the prom queen.”
Despite being a fourth-seeded team in the NCAA tournament and ranked No. 11 in the country, some oddsmakers have made the Spartans a 9-2 pick to win the national title, behind only top-seeded Florida.
Just a week ago, Michigan State was slumping into the conference tournament and searching for chemistry it lost during an injury- and illness-stunted season. Izzo’s goals last weekend in Indianapolis were for his players to get much-needed time together in at least two games, cut down on turnovers, improve on defense and to get their “swagger” back.
“I’d say in those three areas, we hit a home run. We did do those three things,” he said. “Now, the goal will be: Can we consistently do them and keep building on it and getting better? As much gratification as I saw in the weekend, there’s still a lot of work to be done, trust me, as far as where we are and where we need to be.”
The Spartans open their 17th straight NCAA tournament on Thursday against 13th-seeded Delaware in Spokane, Wash.
If Michigan State avoids an upset, history suggests it will have success on Saturday in the round of 32 against Cincinnati or Harvard. Izzo is 18-3 in the second game of an NCAA tournament site, consistently showing he can get his teams ready to play with only one day to prepare.
A little more than 24 hours after beating rival Michigan in the tournament final Sunday afternoon, Izzo put his players on a plane following a brief practice Monday. He acknowledged wanting to help the team get adjusted to the time change, and hinted at another reason to leave three days before playing Delaware.
The coach with one national championship and six Final Four appearances disdains social media, especially Twitter, because it gives largely anonymous critics direct access to his players.
Izzo also doesn’t like how people can virtually pat his players on their back. He has warned his players about getting distracted by Twitter, and wished they’d leave their hand-held devices in East Lansing.
“I’d be checking that phone in at the local bank and put it back somewhere where it’s locked up because I think we are going to have to deal with those things,” Izzo said. “I’m ecstatic that people think we’re going to be good, but they thought that at the beginning of the year.”
The Spartans are playing closer to their potential because their deep, talented and experienced team is together after being broken up for much of the year due to a string of health-related setbacks.
Seniors Adreian Payne and Keith Appling will be very motivated to win at least four games. The duo doesn’t want to be the first players in Izzo’s program to stay four years and fail to make it to the Final Four.
While Izzo insisted he’s not talking about that fact, Payne said it’s one of his daily thoughts.
“I think and pray about that every day,” Payne said last week. “It’s on my mind when we practice. I know I haven’t made it to one yet, and this is my last chance.”
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