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Big Ten: Michigan State poised for another run
Michigan State could win the rest of its games, claim the Big Ten Conference regular-season and tournament title, and the Spartans still aren't likely to be seeded any higher than fourth come NCAA tournament time.
But make no mistake about it, the Spartans are a dangerous team capable of making another run -- their fifth in six years -- to the Elite Eight.
That's a far cry from where they were a little more than a month ago, when a 77-64 loss to Wisconsin left them at 5-7.
Since then, the Spartans (17-9, 12-3) have rallied to win 12 of 14 games and tonight they will play the Badgers (19-6, 10-4) for at least a share of the Big Ten title.
Michigan State could win the conference outright if it beats the Badgers and Illinois (20-5, 11-3) loses one of its final two games. Both of the Illini's remaining games (Purdue, Ohio State) are on the road, so a loss isn't inconceivable.
Winning the Big Ten title is nothing new to the Spartans, as they have won or shared four of the past six. But given where they started this season, it would cap a remarkable turnaround.
According to some of the players, the key to the Spartans' run has been a recommitment to defense once the conference games began.
"It is like night and day from right now to when we were below .500," sophomore center Paul Davis said.
"We kind of just made a pact with each other that we were going to start out by playing defense and start this thing again, wipe the slate clean with the Big Ten season."
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said the turnaround has been a result of a number of things and that he's glad the team has played so well down the stretch.
"Confidence has been the No. 1 ticket that has changed for us," Izzo said. "It has been a long year but you like to be playing your best basketball at the end of the season."
Although defense has been a key component to Michigan State's run -- it has held its past five opponents to an average of 56 points -- the Spartans' efficiency on offense has been impressive. They lead the Big Ten in field-goal percentage (.533), 3-point field goal percentage (.433) and free-throw percentage (.779) in conference games.
Indiana is the only team to lead the Big Ten in all three categories and the Hoosiers have done it twice -- 1983 and 1994.
Streak will end
Speaking of Indiana, the Hoosiers' streak of 18 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances is all but over in the wake of their current four-game losing streak.
And if Indiana isn't careful, it might miss the postseason all together.
The Hoosiers dropped to 12-13, 6-8 with a 63-59 loss to Northwestern, Wednesday. That means they need to win their remaining two games (Wisconsin, Michigan) and at least one Big Ten tournament game to finish over .500 and grab an NIT berth.
The streak of 18 consecutive tournament appearances is the second-longest active streak -- Arizona has participated in the previous 19 tournaments -- and the third best of all time.
North Carolina's streak of 27 consecutive tournament appearances was snapped in 2002.
Indiana, of course, could still preserve its streak by winning the Big Ten tournament.
NCAA prospects dim
As it stands, the Big Ten's only locks for the NCAA tournament are Michigan State, Wisconsin and Illinois. And right now, it doesn't look as if the conference's number of bids will increase unless someone other than the big three wins the conference tournament.
Most experts, however, project that the conference will get only three bids, which would be its lowest total since the tournament expanded to 64 teams.
The team with probably the next-best case is Michigan (16-9, 7-7), because the Wolverines are the only other Big Ten team with a Rating Percentage Index in the top 70 (they are 53) and they have two winnable games remaining (Indiana, Northwestern).
But Michigan likely will need to win both games and then two games in the Big Ten tournament to even make a case.