EAST LANSING Michigan State has its worst late-February record in decades, with two games over .500 at 11-9 and a long way from the NCAA tournament bubble.
And it hasn’t even come to the hardest part of his season.
That part begins on Tuesday, when the Spartans welcome No. 5 Illinois to the Breslin Center (7:00 pm, FS1).
That match will begin a 13-day period in which the Spartans will play six games, one that almost certainly marks the most concise series of regular season conferences in program history.
It will be a hell of a few days, Spartans coach Tom Izzo said Monday.
The piece is unique both for the difficulty of the opposition and for how compact it is.
Four of those six games are against teams currently in the top five of the Associated Press poll. In addition to Illinois, the Spartans will play No. 4 Ohio State on Thursday and No. 3 Michigan twice in the last four days of the season. The Spartans have not played more than three top-five opponents in a single season in the past decade, let alone in a 13-day period.
The trajectory was created by postponements by both the state of Michigan and Michigan. The Spartans games against Illinois on Tuesday and Indiana next Tuesday were moved from January, when the Spartans went 20 days without a game due to COVID-19 matters. A game against Michigan was postponed this month during the closure of the Wolverines track and field division.
Viewing the piece as a whole can be overwhelming. So even more than usual, Michigan State is emphasizing a game-at-a-time philosophy for the next two weeks.
You have to take that approach, said Spartan’s junior forward Aaron Henry. You try to look at it from that perspective of so many games in so many days, you lose yourself in it. You have to win every day, even the days we don’t have games.
While the stretch may be hellish, it also presents an opportunity, according to Izzos evaluation.
At 9/11, Michigan State is currently out of the picture of the NCAA Tournament. But the power of this year’s Big Ten offers near-night opportunities for big wins, and offers the Spartans a potential path to the tournament despite their record.
The players don’t think about Tuesday, but they know that the schedule streak of 22 consecutive NCAA tournaments is at stake for the next two weeks.
We know what’s at stake, Henry said.
Michigan State took a step in the right direction on Saturday when it scored 52 points in the second half and turned a double-digit deficit into a seven-point victory in Indiana. Henry tied his career-high with 27 points in that game, while Gabe Brown, Joshua Langford and Rocket Watts all revived.
However, the road will be more difficult on Tuesday. Illinois will come in winning seven consecutive games, most recently with 31 road points in Minnesota on Saturday.
Illini guard Ayo Dosunmu makes a run on the Big Ten Player of the Year award, averaging 21 points per game in his last four, plus 8.3 assists and 5.3 rebounds, while coming from better than 50 percent. the field and 3-point range shoots.
He’s balanced by the indoor presence of 7-foot Kofi Cockburn, who averages 17.6 points per game and is the Big Tens major rebounder at 10.3 per game.
Cockburn is the latest defensive challenge in a season that Izzo says features the best pick of the Big Tens great men he’s ever seen. That consistently had Michigan State choosing how often to double the low entry versus potentially open 3 pointers, something he and his staff will do again on Tuesday.
Sometimes you pick your poison when you’re not really strong all over, Izzo said.
That choice poses a new challenge for the end of the season. But Izzo sees late-season challenges as opportunities and an opportunity to turn the season around.
We have great opportunities, Izzo said.
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