After hanging on the fringe for most of this season, the MSU women’s basketball team has cracked the Associated Press Top 25 poll this week. The No. 25 Spartans (16-2 overall, 4-1 Big Ten)are ranked for the first time since the final poll of the 2010-11 season.
MSU achieved a No. 12 ranking in March of that season and finished 27-6 before being ousted in the second round of the NCAA Tournament by Green Bay. The Spartan also won the Big Ten that season.
Joining the MSU in the poll is No. 8 Penn State, No. 15 Purdue and No. 23 Michigan with Thursday’s opponent Nebraska and Iowa also receiving votes.
“I don’t get too caught up on all that stuff,” said head coach Suzy Merchant, who has preached the one-game-at-a-time mantra all season.
“I mean really our league is so tough, you know. Our league is so tough that you just can’t worry about what your record is or who you’re going to play after the next game, so for us it really is just about focusing.”
The Spartans play all three ranked Big Ten teams in a two-week stretch that starts with Purdue at home Jan. 27. MSU is 0-2 this season in ranked contests with a road loss to No. 17 Dayton and a 21-point home loss to the Nittany Lions on Jan. 6.
The Big Ten’s four ranked teams ties it with three other conferences for the second-most poll spots. The Southeastern Conference leads all conferences with five teams in the AP Top 25.
Baylor of the Big 12 Conference holds the No. 1 spot for the third consecutive week.
In the latest version of ESPN.com’s Bracketology with Charlie Creme, the Spartans are projected as a No. 6-seed in the NCAA Tournament with a first-round match up against No. 11-seed Princeton in College Park, Md. MSU fell to Louisville, 67-55, in College Park a season ago in the first round of the tournament.
Big Ten-leading Penn State, which is undefeated in conference play, is projected as a No. 2-seed.
Merchant has expressed varying degrees of disappointment at times this season with her team’s execution and energy despite having only two losses. At her press conference Monday, Merchant was asked if she’s starting to form a picture of this team’s potential ceiling at this point in the season.
“It’s just still a grind,” she said. “You’re one possession away from losing a game, or maybe more depending on what kind of energy and focus you have. So really, for us, we’re just trying to put the best group out there we can. We keep tweaking and adding things and adjusting things.”
Regarding the conference pecking order, Penn State’s win against Michigan on Monday broke a tie with the Wolverines for sole possession of first place in the Big Ten. Michigan joins MSU and Purdue for a three-team logjam below the Nittany Lions.
Thursday’s tilt with Nebraska is the second of a four-game stretch that features three games away from Breslin Center. MSU is 5-1 this season when it dons the green away jerseys.
In her sixth season, Merchant’s teams have the best road-winning percentage in the conference during that span with a 29-16 record.
“We have a really working group and we don’t have a lot of kids that don’t want to get in a stance and get after somebody,” Merchant said.
“That’s part of it. I think we don’t have a go-to superstar player that we’re running everything through, so it’s a very unified approach night-in and night-out. So whether we’re at home or on the road, I just think they know everybody is very important, that everybody shows up for the most part. We can get away with one, maybe 1 1/2 kids not there. But for the most part we need everybody all in. And I think that’s been our approach and hopefully been part of our success is that defensively and offensively we have a really unified attack.”