The Michigan State Spartans lost a hard-fought battle with the Ohio State Buckeyes in the Big Ten tournament semifinals on Saturday. However, there is reason for Tom Izzo's squad to be optimistic despite the 61-58 defeat.
In an extremely difficult conference that could very well produce half of this year's Final Four teams, the Spartans have been mired in a perpetual, highly physical battle in the latter half of the regular season.
The matchup with the Buckeyes was no exception, as the game predictably ended in a relatively low score. Keith Appling and Gary Harris struggled from the field, combining to go 7-of-24 against an Ohio State defense that has emerged as one of the best in the country.
Derrick Nix continues to be a force, although he did commit a very hard foul on Buckeyes point guard Aaron Craft, who was knifing through the Spartans defense all afternoon.
Still, that is the kind of hard-nosed attitude and physicality that define Michigan State basketball. It's just a matter of harnessing that for Nix, and the break from the court and Big Ten opponents should help. Adreian Payne is also solid and gives Sparty a formidable frontcourt for a March run.
A change of pace is necessary, and the Spartans will have an extra day of rest, as opposed to facing another grueling test against the Wisconsin Badgers in the Big Ten tournament final.
Izzo essentially admitted as much after the loss:
I am really looking forward to playing somebody else. I think the other Big Ten teams are. We've really beaten the hell out of each other. I really believe the toughest teams, the ones who have been through the most, is going to benefit. I'm looking forward to playing anybody. I'd rather play the Lakers tomorrow instead of these teams we've played recently.
Obviously he was using some hyperbole in referencing the NBA's Lakers, but Izzo does have a point here.
The combination of opponent familiarity and the difficulty of all the games have taken a toll on the Spartans. It has been a cycle of monotony, and although it's been a treat for fans of college basketball to see the high level of play in the Big Ten, Michigan State will benefit from a different style of competition.
Izzo always seems to have his teams playing their best at the right time, as evidenced by six trips to the Final Four during his tenure in East Lansing.
Out of the nine years that the Spartans have finished in the top two of the conference, Izzo led six of those squads to a Final Four appearance and two others to the Sweet 16.
That seems to indicate that Sparty is yet again ready to make some serious noise in the Big Dance.
Defense is always a staple for Michigan State, and 2012-13 has been no exception. But thanks to the productivity of the backcourt from a scoring standpoint and the advantage they have over most opponents in the paint, the Spartans have the firepower to keep up with higher-scoring squads.
Armed with that sort of versatility and the trademark toughness that Izzo preaches, don't be surprised if the Spartans use the loss as fuel to propel them to Atlanta for the Final Four.