Michigan State has dropped half of its last 10 games and look more discombobulated than it has at any point in the season. But this time, injuries aren't its main issue.
These Spartans have missed defensive assignments, been out-rebounded by smaller teams and lacked the heart that Tom Izzo-coached teams customarily personify on a year-to-year basis. This string of issues has most likely cost them the Big Ten title.
As they look ahead, the Spartans have three games remaining: home against Illinois and Iowa, then away at Ohio State. All three games are winnable, but State's trending inconsistency is certainly worrisome.
If they do prevail in the aforementioned games, State would end with a 14-4 conference campaign. Big Ten championship or not, that is an impressive resume considering the adversity this team has had to overcome.
Here are the keys to Michigan State winning its final three games in Big Ten play.
Illinois has struggled extensively since it started its season 11-2 overall and 2-0 in the Big Ten. Therefore, this is a game that Michigan State must win, especially because it will be played in the Breslin Center.
Illinois ranks second to last in the Big Ten for scoring, and its only player scoring more than 11.3 points per game is Rayvonte Rice. But even he has struggled recently, shooting just 5-of-17 for 17 points in his last two games.
When Rice doesn't score, the Illini are in trouble.
Conversely, Michigan State's strength has been scoring, even in its loss against Michigan. Sparty is second in the Big Ten with 77.3 points scored per game. That gives a clear advantage to the green and white.
Illinois is also last in the conference for defensive rebounding, which should poise Adreian Payne for a big day and potentially Branden Dawson for a nice return. The Spartans will certainly need Dawson in the lineup again after they lost the rebounding advantage to a smaller Michigan squad.
Quite simply, this is Michigan State's game to lose. It needs to regain its swagger, confidence and togetherness as the Big Ten Tournament looms in the distance, and a victory is the ideal way to start.
Illinois is second to last in the Big Ten standings with a 4-10 conference record. However, it did just convincingly beat Minnesota by 13 at home, which the Illini will attempt to build off of.
The Spartans will look to get back on track against a team that they handled by 16 points earlier this season. State can't afford to slip up in this one.
This matchup features two of the best, highest-scoring squads in the Big Ten—and Iowa is hungry for revenge.
Michigan State prevailed 71-69 in overtime in the teams' earlier meeting this season in Iowa City. Sparty won without Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson's services, but nonetheless willed itself to victory in large part due to Matt Costello's 11 points and 12 rebounds.
After that game, both teams have struggled. Since, Iowa is 3-3 and State is a lowly 3-4 in conference play.
If Izzo and company want to change their fortunes, then they must watch the game film and apply the same intensity that they did in that barn-burning win. Right now, the Spartans look like a completely different, uninspired team.
Michigan State will also have to control the pace. Iowa wants to push the ball and finish as many easy, uncontested transition baskets as possible. The Hawkeyes' frenetic pace of play is built to tire teams out, which largely explains why head coach Fran McCaffery substitutes so frequently.
By this game, Branden Dawson will likely have returned, which will help because he is extremely versatile and he's also another body that Tom Izzo can use to stagnate Iowa's pace. However, that's easier said than done.
Michigan State will have to play together defensively and crash the boards against a Hawkeyes team that ranks third in the country with 42.6 rebounds per contest. In State's recent loss to Michigan, it blew several defensive assignments and was out-rebounded on both ends. That can't happen in this game.
State will need a tremendous performance in all areas to upend this high-flying Hawkeyes team for a second time this season.
The Spartans ended Ohio State's perfect record with a 72-68 thriller in overtime back in early January. However, Michigan State inexcusably lost the rebound battle to a team that is undersized.
That means Adreian Payne needs to see a large dose of touches this time around.
In the recent Michigan loss, Sparty failed to feed its talented big men when smaller, lesser-talented guys were guarding them. State will find itself in a similar position, as Amir Williams is the only one guy who plays over 6'8" for Ohio State.
If Williams is matched up on Payne, then he can drift to the perimeter and beat Williams with quickness or range. If Payne is faced with a smaller defender, then the 6'10" senior should dominate the paint. Either way, he must be the offensive focal point.
In addition, the Spartans will need to take better care of the ball. The Buckeyes boast one of the premier defensive backcourts in the country with Aaron Craft, Shannon Scott and Sam Thompson wreaking havoc on the perimeter. Those guys make a living off of intercepting the ball in the passing lane and picking it away from lackadaisical ball-handlers.
It was an issue on Jan. 7th, as the Spartans turned it over 17 times. And it was a problem against Michigan recently as well with Spartans losing the turnover battle by a whopping 10.
This game will be the Big Ten finale for both teams. Michigan State must be prepared to play in a hostile environment and close out its regular season on a positive note.