The Michigan State Spartans are currently in the midst of a nasty tailspin, losing two in a row and six of their last 10 contests. Their last two regular season games feature Iowa at home and at Ohio State. How important are they?
Putting it candidly: extremely—for their tournament résumé and the overall welfare of the squad.
Sparty’s ongoing issues are intensifying. Keith Appling’s wrist isn’t improving and there is a team-wide growing inconsistency on both ends of the court. Saturday’s game against Illinois marked State’s second bad loss at home in its last four contests.
Its final two Big Ten showdowns are pivotal for multiple reasons.
The Spartans are 22-7, which collectively is an impressive feat, given their situation. All year long, the injury bug has limited their capabilities, and initially, they still found ways to win.
However, their issues have magnified in the last month. Loss by loss, a new concern seems to sprout, whether it is defensive lapses, inconsistent rebounding or immense individual struggles from varying players.
It’s difficult to gauge their tournament seed.
The Spartans are probably within the range of No.3 seed to a No. 5 seed, and that has the potential to improve with a couple of solid wins to finish out the regular season.
But if they lose both, which is very possible, a nine-loss regular season could translate to a lower seed, more like a sixth or seventh seed.
A 1-1 split to the final games and a respectable run in the Big Ten Tournament will likely be sufficient enough for a fourth or fifth seed.
Michigan State’s top three wins are over Kentucky (then ranked No. 1 in the country), Ohio State (No. 3) and Iowa (No. 15). Initially, those were worthy, résumé-building victories.
But now, it doesn’t appear so.
Now No. 25 Kentucky has five losses (four to unranked teams) in the SEC and looks increasingly worse. Additionally, Ohio State is unranked with a 9-8 record in the Big Ten while No. 24 Iowa is 22-9.
In a broad context, those victories aren’t as impressive as they momentarily seemed.
Late victories over Iowa and Ohio State wouldn’t dramatically boost Michigan State’s résumé, but they would serve them well in the tournament committee’s eyes. Both opponents are NCAA Tournament-caliber.
Obviously, Michigan State isn’t excelling in many areas of the game. Before its last loss to Illinois, Sparty’s issues lied directly on the rebounding and defensive fronts. Those problems were prevalent enough for Tom Izzo to say that State must "get back to guarding people."
That is completely foreign to Izzo’s squads, which are normally disciplined and physically imposing. However, State also scored only 51 points against Nebraska in a home loss on Feb. 16. In its defeat to Illinois, Sparty registered an abysmal 46 points on 39.1 percent shooting.
Gary Harris scored 19 of them.
From Appling’s incompetence, to Adreian Payne’s nonexistence, the Spartans struggled to score on the Illini defense.
That was Payne’s first poor showing since he returned from injury, but he will respond. However, Appling clearly can’t trust his wrist enough to resume his scoring ways, which is certainly troubling.
Offensively, State should have enough firepower to get by Iowa and Ohio State. Payne and Gary Harris are two of the most lethal scorers in the Big Ten. Combine that duo with the athletic Branden Dawson and sharpshooters Kenny Kaminski and Travis Trice, and State offers a capable attack. Denzel Valentine can also score in a variety of ways.
However, Appling’s scoring will be needed in the Big Dance. He presents an additional threat and is capable of shouldering the offensive load when his counterparts are struggling.
That’s when he’s healthy, though.
On the opposite end of the floor, State has also struggled. It has allowed its last three opponents to shoot 47 percent or above from the floor. Even though it held Nebraska to 35.8 percent shooting, Sparty failed to make the plays late in the game to secure the win.
Whether it is blown defensive coverages, late rotations or allowing offensive rebounds, State has recently struggled to shut down opponents. That problem needs to be rectified.
If Michigan State solves some of those issues and wins these last two games, then it will help restore its confidence headed into Big Ten Tournament play.
In that vein, these final two contests are significant. Although Michigan State is a lock for a solid seed in the NCAA Tournament, how it fares in these waning games could partially boost or diminish its tournament resume.
Right now, the Spartans must approach them with the utmost importance.