EAST LANSING, Mich. – Tom Izzo ended his comments Wednesday night with his own version of Aaron Rodgers’ R-E-L-A-X advice to Green Bay Packers fans a couple of years ago. Michigan State’s basketball coach knows his team’s situation better than anyone. He also has faith that what this team is now isn’t what it will be the second week of March.
“I don’t feel very good about where we are, but I wouldn’t get too nervous out there because this team is getting better, and they’re starting to compete,” Izzo said after his Spartans beat Oakland, 77-65, to close out the non-conference portion of their schedule. “They’re starting to learn what to do and we are going to get better.”
The Spartans are 8-5, but four of the losses came against teams ranked currently ranked in the AP Top 25: No. 4 Baylor, at No. 5 Duke, No. 6 Kentucky and No. 18 Arizona. The other came against a Northeastern team that’s rated No. 133 in the latest CBS Sports RPI rankings and No. 142 by KenPom.com.
Izzo was thinking the Spartans would be no worse than 10-3 at this juncture when he first looked at the schedule and sized it against his team. That was before knee injuries took 6-foot-9 forwards Ben Carter and Gavin Schilling out of the equation. And it was well before a left-ankle injury sidelined star freshman Miles Bridges.
Now comes the Big Ten schedule, starting Tuesday at Minnesota. Michigan State has a lot of work to do if it’s going to extend its streak of NCAA tournament appearances to 20 consecutive seasons. A .500 season in the 18-game Big Ten regular season would leave the Spartans at 17-14 heading into the conference tournament.
“Disappointed that we’re not at least 10-3? Considering what we have been through, I tip my hat off to my guys and figure that they just had to hang in there around Christmas, so when we are able to get back, we will go at it,” Izzo said. “We are going to get better.”
The Big Ten competition
Here’s a look at the records of Big Ten teams (as of Thursday), their rankings in the AP Top 25 and KenPom.com, and when Michigan State plays them.
|Opponent||Record||AP||KenPom.com||vs. Michigan State|
|Minnesota||11-1||rv||46||12/27 (road), 1/11 (home)|
|Purdue||11-2||15||12||1/24 (home), 2/18 (road)|
|Wisconsin||10-2||14||10||2/25 or 26 (home)|
|Michigan||9-3||—||27||1/29 (home), 2/7 (road)|
|Ohio State||9-3||—||35||1/15 (road), 2/14 (home)|
|Penn State||8-5||—||98||1/7 (at Philadelphia)|
Michigan State’s first five conference games – home/away against Minnesota, vs. Northwestern, vs. Rutgers and vs. Penn State in Philadelphia – are against teams that went a combined 18-54 in Big Ten play last season. But they aren’t the same teams this season. The four have a combined non-conference record of 40-9.
Northwestern (10-2) has wins over Texas, Wake Forest and Dayton, and its defeats have been by a combined six points against Butler and Notre Dame. Minnesota (11-1) was 8-23 last season but has wins against SEC opponents Arkansas and Vanderbilt. Its lone loss was by eight points at No. 21 Florida State.
The Big Ten doesn’t have a clear No. 1 team – Wisconsin is No. 14 in this week’s AP poll, followed by Purdue at No. 15 and Indiana at No. 16 – but the bottom half of the league is going to be more challenging. That’s why beating Oakland was a big win for Michigan State.
“At the end of the season, if you look back at our schedule and see losses to all top-15 teams and then Northeastern and Oakland, those are two pretty big blemishes,” said sophomore forward Kenny Goins before the Oakland game. “You can live with the losses to Duke and Arizona, but those other losses would show up pretty big at the end of the year. We’ve got to limit those.”
Nebraska (100) and Rutgers (115) are the only Big Ten teams rated No. 100 or higher in the KenPom rankings. Michigan State is No. 53. The analytics site projects Michigan State to finish 8-10 in the Big Ten. Michigan State hasn’t finished below .500 in the Big Ten since the 1992-93 season, three years before Izzo went from being Jud Heathcote’s assistant to running the program.
Izzo started three of his four freshman against Oakland: forward Nick Ward, guard Joshua Langford and point guard Cassius Winston. Only Bridges was missing. The Spartans hope to have him back sooner rather than later.
“Well, there’s a lot of talented players out there. For people to sit there and say that crap about them is ridiculous,” Oakland coach Greg Kamp said. “This is a gold standard basketball program in this country coached by probably the best coach in the country. If you think that they’re going to fold in December, you guys are crazy. That guy can coach and he’s got talented players.
“Does he have some guys missing? Yeah. Is that great player (Bridges) missing? Yeah. All that is going to do is make those other guys better, so when that kid gets back, they’ll be better. I guarantee you they will be there in March. … They’re no bubble team. They’re going to kick a lot of people’s rear ends.”