How Sparty Surged To An Outright Big Ten Title

It was in January that Michigan State hit a lull in their season. They lost at Ohio State and at home to Michigan. The Spartans needed overtime to survive Rutgers. Michigan State looked uninspired in the process. I took to this space at the time and wrote the following: “Their conference hopes are hanging by a thread…if it truly is just a question of an effort gap for a week in January, then now should be when Sparty re-establishes its mojo.” Twelve games later, the mojo is re-established. Michigan State hasn’t lost since and they are the outright champs of the Big Ten.

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The available evidence suggests that the January bump on the road was a classic case of college kids losing focus in the bitter cold of winter when March Madness still seems a long way off. In those three shaky games, Michigan State was not rebounding the ball. As we look at the current 12-game winning streak, it’s evident that head coach Tom Izzo got his team’s attention when it came to playing defense and hitting the glass. Here are some relevant numbers…

*Over the last twelve games, Michigan State held their opponent to 43% shooting or below from the floor in eleven of them. Eight times, opponents couldn’t even hit 40 percent.

*The Spartans cleaned up the misses with a vengeance. In the first five games of the win streak, they outrebounded their opponent by double digits. They outrebounded their opponent 11 times over the 12 games as a whole.

*The only opponent to outrebound Michigan State was Indiana. That came on a nationally televised ESPN game on the Saturday night before the Super Bowl when IU’s Freddie McSwain seemed to scarf up every rebound in sight. But Sparty made up for it on defense, holding the Hoosiers to 29% shooting.

*Iowa was the only team to shoot well against Michigan State, going 52% from the floor in a game the Spartans had to win with offense, a 96-93 final. It’s worth noting that this game came 48 hours after the aforementioned Indiana game—as though Sparty just hit another little bump in the road that lasted for three days.

It naturally follows that the individual Michigan State players, especially on the inside, picked up their ow games during this winning stretch. Jaren Jackson, the 6’11” center, who combines good post moves with great defense, blocked 40 shots in the last 12 games. Nick Ward has averaged 7.5 rebounds per game. Miles Bridges, who goes 6’7” and plays all over the floor, has knocked down 20-plus points six times.

Where Sparty will ultimately be seeded for the NCAA Tournament is a subject of some debate. They’ve only risen from a projected 3-seed to a projected 2-seed in the course of this winning streak. ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi, using the methodology the Selection Committee will use, does not have Michigan State on the top line and that’s something that will draw a lot of ire—particularly if the Spartans at least get to the final of the conference tournament being held in New York City this week.

Seeding is an interesting conversation, but the reality is this—when Michigan State plays defense and rebounds like they have been, there’s no one that’s going to stop them from getting to San Antonio and the 2018 Final Four. Tom Izzo’s only job now is to make sure none of those pesky little bumps in the road, where the effort mysteriously disappears for a night, happens anytime after Sunday, March 11.