Michigan State's frustrating route through the 2020-21 season has reached its defining stage. Depending on the Spartans' results in the next two weeks, they'll either be preparing for the NCAA tournament or watching from home.
The next six games include four Top Five clashes, both Illinois and Ohio State once and rival Michigan twice. There's no definite number of wins required, but anything worse than a 3-3 record may leave Tom Izzo's team on the wrong side of the March Madness bubble.
It's an irregular position for the blue-blood program, which has undergone a dramatic perception change in just 60 days.
Early on, the Spartans seemed destined for the NCAA tournament. History established that belief, considering MSU would've made its 23rd straight trip to March Madness last year. Despite losing Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman, the team returned nearly everyone else in 2020-21, added Marquette transfer Joey Hauser and won six straight games to begin the season.
While the path to 6-0 had aesthetic flaws, MSU kept winning and climbed as high as No. 4 in the AP Top 25. And, hey, because of the pandemic-affected offseason, the retooled rotation needed a little time to develop as a unit, right?
Even after an unsightly three-game skid to Northwestern, Wisconsin and Minnesota, the Spartans relieved some nerves. They edged Nebraska and destroyed No. 15 Rutgers to reach 8-3.
But then the losses started piling up.
It started with a 17-point second-half collapse at home to Purdue. Following an extended pause due to coronavirus health and safety protocols, the Spartans returned with a horrendous 67-37 result at Rutgers and fell to Top 15 teams Ohio State and Iowa.
While victories over Nebraska and Penn State provided a chance to breathe, neither win accomplished much for MSU's overall outlook. Any positive feelings from those wins disappeared in the 88-58 loss to Iowa—the worst home loss of Izzo's 26-year tenure—and another letdown to Purdue.
That meandering path brings us to today, where the Spartans are 11-9 thanks to a weekend upset of Indiana.
Following the win, per Matt Charboneau of the Detroit News, Izzo labeled the next six games a "wicked stretch." Along with the featured games with Illinois, Ohio State and Michigan, the Spartans also travel to Maryland and host Indiana.
Had they lost to Indiana, we probably wouldn't be having this conversation. Instead, MSU is facing two diverging paths: Indiana was a nice victory in a bad season, or it kick-started a surge.
In his latest NCAA tournament forecast, B/R's Kerry Miller lists Michigan State as the fourth team out. BracketMatrix shows the Spartans included in zero of the 100 projections tracked.
Michigan State's 2-8 record against Quadrant 1 competition is the reason for this predicament. However, the resume is surviving because of 3-1 and 6-0 marks against Quadrant 2 teams and Quadrant 3/4 opponents, respectively. Now, the Spartans only have potential quality wins remaining.
Recent history says MSU could struggle and disappear from the bubble conversation anyway. Nobody should be surprised if the Spartans lose all four games to Illinois, Ohio State and Michigan. Slow starts, mediocre three-point shooting, turnovers and shaky defense have plagued them, and a victory over bubble-dwelling Indiana still showed everything but mediocre shooting.
"One game isn't going to make it all better," Izzo rightly told reporters after the Indiana win.
Yet the potential for something better is apparent, too. Given that beating Indiana put MSU back on the radar, imagine what upsetting a Top Five opponent would do.
Michigan State hosts Illinois and Ohio State this week. Even in an empty Breslin Center, home court is home court.
If the Spartans can manage a split, for example, it provides a route to 14-12 with victories over Maryland and Indiana—and that assumes two losses to Michigan. They can finish the regular season with eight Quadrant 1 and 2 wins and zero bad losses, which is respectable for a bubble team.
While, in theory, Michigan State could win the Big Ten tournament and secure an automatic bid, the reality is that's unlikely. Winning four or five games on consecutive days is hard enough, and MSU will have played these six games in 13 days.
Rather than viewing this wicked stretch as a miserable ending to rough year, however, the Spartans have an opportunity.
One win doesn't lessen the frustration of the last two months. But three or four victories would be a good start.