Early in the season, Michigan State had observers scratching their heads. A team that defeated Kansas at a neutral site that also struggled to close out a bad Sun Belt team in Louisiana-Lafayette at home? Those results don't often compute.
Fast forward three months, and the Spartans are alone atop the Big Ten after administering a 75-52 smacking to in-state rival Michigan at the Breslin Center.
With six games remaining in the regular season, MSU is all alone in first place, a half game up on Indiana. The Spartans host the Hoosiers next Tuesday night. The two can be reasonably expected to be tied for first place at the opening tip, since both play Nebraska and Indiana hosts Purdue.
Just three weeks ago, IU made a narrow escape from Michigan State at Assembly Hall, putting a defensive clamp on Sparty late in the game and not allowing a point over the final 3:32 of the game. Since that contest, MSU has weathered a tough first half against Illinois, a slugfest against Minnesota and had a pair of dominant outings against Purdue and Michigan.
Indiana has played its own strong basketball—other than a game-ending snooze that allowed Illinois to steal a win in Champaign. The Hoosiers learned a lesson from that game, but they end the season with trips to Minnesota and Michigan in their last four games. Both of those teams hung tough with IU in Bloomington.
Michigan State ends the season with games at Ohio State, at Michigan, at home against Wisconsin and at home against Northwestern. Three of the four have struggled with MSU's blend of rugged defense, interior bulk and timely shooting and the other is Northwestern.
Regarding that timely shooting, Spartan freshman Gary Harris is busy cementing his position as the league's rookie of the year. Harris has drained 20 of 36 three-point shots over his last six games, a span that includes a 5-of-10 performance against Indiana.
The toughness that is seemingly always evidenced for a Tom Izzo-coached team reared its head in a large way against Michigan on Tuesday night. The freshman-laden Wolverines wilted under the pressure in the Breslin Center, with even All-American Trey Burke showing frustration.
Can the one-man Buckeyes or the injury-depleted Wildcats succeed where the usually hyper-efficient Wolverines failed? Can Wisconsin stay in the game away from its friendly confines of the Kohl Center?
Anyone who runs into the Michigan State team that eviscerated Michigan tonight will not be happy with the answers to these questions.
That Indiana game next Tuesday is shaping up as a true Big Ten title fight. The Spartans are happy that the battle's on their turf, where they have not lost all season.
The MSU faithful should be forgiven for looking into the Breslin Center rafters in search of space to put the next Big Ten championship banner.
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron, home of the exclusive Back Iron Index and Bracketometry, telling us which teams SHOULD be in the NCAA tournament come March.