The final pair of Big Ten games represents a shot at redemption for Michigan State after Michigan clinched the Big Ten title with a win at Illinois.
Thought to be one of his better overall teams, Tom Izzo has watched his No. 22-ranked Spartans (22-7, 11-5 B1G) plummet for weeks—the 53-46 home loss to Illinois on Saturday only punctuated matters.
In its current form, Michigan State has a small chance of making it to the Final Four. Watching such an athletic bunch seemingly waste its potential has been disheartening.
The Spartans would gain a great deal of confidence by finishing the conference schedule with victories over Iowa and Ohio State.
At the very least, getting a whiff of a league tournament championship would do wonders as Izzo heads into familiar territory—March Madness.
They may be down. But he's not out.
According to MLive.com’s Gillian Van Stratt, the 19-year veteran coach continues fighting the good fight; he honestly believes that his crew can right the ship:
I don't think it will be a magical run in March, because I'm expecting to be there. There's no magic, it's not '05 or '09, but I think we can do that. Maybe we won't. But I want you to leave here knowing this guy thinks we can. So everybody put all the pressure they want on me about it, cause I definitely believe we can and we will. I'm not trying to sell it so that it makes me feel better, cause I don't do that to you. I'm telling you what I think.
Am I a little disappointed, a little concerned it's gone this late? Yeah, I am. Do I sit there in my darkest hours and say, 'Will it ever come back?' Sure. Sure I do. But then when I look at film or I look at how we've played or I look at some games we've won, or I look at some games we've lost and how they played—Nebraska comes to mind—I think we're right there with everybody.
In 2005, the Spartans reached the Final Four thanks to a well-rounded roster that played together. Paul Davis did most of the dirty work, but he had reinforcements on the glass in the form of Matt Trannon, Alan Anderson and Kelvin Torbert.
How important are the final two Big Ten games?
This year's team, sadly, doesn't have such support. For the most part, it's been either Adreian Payne or Branden Dawson handling rebounding duties.
Viciously attacking the rim, Shannon Brown lived up to his 5-star billing while showcasing a lethal offensive skill set that helped punch a ticket to St. Louis.
Gary Harris is this year's Brown, but his ability to take over games comes into question. Does he have what it takes to propel Michigan State to the national semis at Cowboys Stadium?
In 2009, a standout cast of Goran Suton, Kalin Lucas, Travis Walton, Durrell Summers and Raymar Morgan, among many others, led Izzo to his second national title game.
Despite the loss to North Carolina, an obvious team of destiny, lack of effort was rarely of concern.
Things worked when they weren't supposed to, and that was the beauty of the 2009 run.
The 2013-14 Spartans have similar qualities, but Izzo's right—this isn't 2005 or 2009.
Try as he might, for some reason, he hasn't been able to get Keith Appling, Travis Trice, Payne and Dawson to play anything like Walton and Suton, or Davis and Trannon.
Prove You Want It
Beating the Hawkeyes and Buckeyes is a starting point.
Good scenario: Michigan State brushes off dirt, finishes 2-0 and has a respectable March (and April?). Perhaps defending the Breslin Center (11-4 this year) will mean something Thursday vs. Iowa.
Bad scenario: Izzo bows to Thad Matta and Fran McCaffery, stumbles into the Big Ten Tournament and falls victim to an early-round exit in the Big Dance.
Likely scenario: A mixture. But again, proving that they're hungry should be the main goal for the Spartans, who would serve themselves well by at least showing up against Iowa and Ohio State.
Back-to-backs have been scarce. Winning six in a row is much more difficult, but it starts somewhere.
According to MLive.com's Mike Griffith, Harris had the following to say about about the bigger picture.
This season's not over. We could be playing for the national championship, we still have the Big Ten tournament, we could go win that.
We go win that (Big Ten tourney) and win the national championship, (and) nobody thinks about this stuff at all. We still have a lot to play for.
Always supportive of teammates, Harris has been vocal during turbulent times. He's also been vocal during the sunshiny days. The sophomore's opinion hasn't wavered since the season's start.
That's a positive sign; it shows that at least one guy, other than Izzo, truly believes.
Numbers and Stats to Entertain
Not quite as inconsistent and frustrating to figure out, the 2010-11 Spartans suffered an early demise when they ran into UCLA in the first (second) round.
Not exactly a surprise, Michigan State's premature ouster was preceded by a 5-5 conference finish, excluding a 2-1 league postseason.
Draymond Green's triple-double went to waste. Other than a late spurt from Keith Appling, it was essentially a one-man show for the Spartans, who, despite a rocky season, really shouldn't have lost to the Bruins.
However, earlier steaks should have been a dead giveaway. The 2010-11 squad never won more than two conference games in a row had just four back-to-back league wins.
And this time, an early exit would carry more weight, as each of Izzo's four-year players have been to the Final Four—except Payne and Appling.
Conference championships have always taken a back seat to the real prize of tournament success. Win or loss, closing this could-have-been regular season with purpose against Iowa and Ohio State means something—it's about pride, if anything else.
Follow Bleacher Report's Michigan State Spartans basketball writer Adam Biggers on Twitter @AdamBiggers81