Michigan State’s path to B1G title much clearer

By Kevin Raju

The final week of Big Ten men’s basketball kicked off Sunday with an upset from the Michigan Wolverines, as they knocked down No. 8 Ohio State. For Michigan State and Spartan basketball fans, this is good news: this places the Spartans alone in first in the Big Ten for the regular season. All the Spartans need to do now is to win both games against Illinois (home) and Wisconsin (away) to clinch a regular season conference title all to themselves for the first time since 2009.

Flashback: February 15

Going into gameplay on February 15, No. 8 Ohio State led the Big Ten with a 13-1 record with that lone loss coming against Penn State at home. No. 6 Purdue held a 12-2 record with losses from both Ohio State and Michigan State. So how did MSU make a comeback to achieve first place in the Big Ten just four days later?

It all started on February 10 with a dagger three from Miles Bridges to help seal a top-5 win against Purdue. Once the buzzer sounded, the most likely scenario at the time was a three-way tie between Michigan State, Purdue and Ohio State for first place within the Big Ten.

Then, MSU took an easy win over Minnesota of 87-57. For MSU to achieve first place, MSU needed to win the rest of its schedule with OSU losing at least two games while Purdue needed to lose at least one.

February 15 to February 18

The night of blockbuster upsets came on February 15. For the Wisconsin Badgers (on Frank Kaminsky night), their upset over Purdue was their first win over a top 10 team of the season. And for the second time this season, Penn State upset Ohio State 79-56.

As fans rushed the court in both Big Ten arenas, both upsets defined how this season of college basketball has been unlike any other season. Furthermore, they lit a way for MSU to secure a regular season conference championship.

On Saturday, MSU traveled to Evanston to take on Chris Collins and the Northwestern Wildcats, a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten opponent. In the first half, the Spartans were out-maneuvered by the Wildcats, trailing at the break 49-27. Given their first half performance, it looked like a major upset for the Spartans at the hands of an unranked team.

However, the second half was even crazier than the first. The Spartans scored 38 points while playing smart defense to hold Northwestern to only 11. Cassius Winston’s 17 points combined with Nick Ward’s 15(including a game-tying basket), along with essential three’s and free throws from Miles Bridges, Matt McQuaid, Josh Langford and Jaren Jackson, led them to victory, along with defense from Xavier Tillman and Kenny Goins.

What’s to come

Up next, MSU has games against Illinois and Wisconsin. Tuesday, the Spartans take on Brad Underwood and the Fighting Illini. The Spartans achieved an 87-74 road victory over the Illini on January 22. The Spartans look to achieve another win on what will be a spectacular Senior Night. Aside from celebrating senior players, this could be both Bridges’ and Jackson Jr.’s last game at the Breslin Center before likely declaring for the NBA draft. A win over Illinois would give MSU at least a share of the regular season title.

Finally, the Spartans wrap up the regular season in Madison, Wisconsin against the Badgers in a chance to secure an outright regular season championship. The Spartans were last seen against the Badgers in a 76-61 home victory on January 26. Wisconsin, coming off a victory against Purdue, may pose a challenge to the Spartans in the final game of the regular season for both teams.

Impact on MSU’s chances to win it all

The victories and upsets in these past days have given the Spartans essential tools to succeeding further on the road to March. Given that the Spartans are in the top four of the Big Ten regular season, they have secured themselves a double-bye for the Big Ten Tournament, allowing them extra days to practice, rest and become a better team for future games. If past, present and future victories show how good this team is, seeding for March Madness could change for MSU from a potential 3-seed to a 2- or even a 1-seed. It goes without saying that seeding affects their chances at winning the NCAA tournament altogether.

The run over Northwestern to secure a win–along with other performances throughout the season–may give way to a Final Four run along with a shot for Izzo’s second national championship. Should the Spartans possess a strong defense, score as many baskets as possible and not make easy turnovers, this could look like another championship. Another championship would make Bridges’ return to East Lansing worthwhile for himself, MSU fans and the team altogether.