Column: MSU needs to reclaim spot as top dog in Big Ten against Purdue
The men’s basketball team only has one game left on its schedule that really matters.
With all due respect to Minnesota, Northwestern, Illinois and Wisconsin, they aren’t high on the Spartans’ priority list right now.
In fact, they might not even be on their list at all.
MSU’s Feb. 25 meeting with the Badgers will be the team’s final game before postseason play, so that showdown could actually mean something in regards to seeding for the Big Ten Tournament, as the Spartans are just two games back of the top spot in the conference standings with five games left to play.
But if someone were to hook Tom Izzo up to a lie detector test and ask him if he’s currently thinking about Wisconsin and the potential future implications of the game, he would likely use every ounce of strength inside his modest body to answer no.
The Badgers, Golden Gophers and Fighting Illini all have losing conference records.
That might not be the case for Northwestern—who is currently 6-6 in the Big Ten—but that’s beside the point.
Obviously, every game matters but the truth is, for No. 4 MSU, none of those games are of much importance.
A matchup with No. 3 Purdue, however, is.
Ever since the 11th week of the college basketball season, when the Boilermakers overtook the Spartans as the highest ranked Big Ten team in the Associated Press Top-25 poll, they’ve been the one team in the conference MSU has been looking up at.
Purdue carried a 19-game winning streak going into a Feb. 7 matchup against the No. 14 Buckeyes, before losing 64-63. Still, winning 19-straight is consistent as it gets.
MSU could very well be the most talented team in the Big Ten.
The Spartans’ starting lineup all season has composed of four sophomores and a lanky, 6-foot-11 freshman in Jaren Jackson Jr., who recently set the MSU single-season blocks record. The team has been able to earn a 23-3 record despite getting little to no help from its upperclassmen-heavy bench.
The youngsters are what makes this team go.
Jackson and Miles Bridges are both likely to be lottery picks in this year’s NBA Draft if they decide to declare—Bridges was named a finalist for both the John R. Wooden Award and the Julius Erving Small Forward of the Year Award.
Cassius Winston was recently named a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award. Nick Ward was named to the preseason Naismith Trophy watch list and has exceeded expectations thus far.
After Bridges, Joshua Langford has arguably been the Spartans most reliable scoring option all season.
If it wasn’t for Duke, who starts four freshmen and have dropped just four games, MSU could’ve been reasonably dubbed the most talented squad in the country, not just in the conference.
But most college basketball analysts would probably label the Boilermakers as the best team in the Big Ten at the moment, and rightfully so.
Purdue’s losses this season are “worse” than the Spartan losses, as the Boilermakers have been upset by unranked opponents twice while the Spartans have only fallen to then-unranked OSU. But since conference play started, it has been nothing but smooth sailing for Purdue, hence its unblemished conference record.
The same can’t be said for the Spartans, who have had their fair share of ups and downs in Big Ten competition.
MSU got ran out of the gym in Columbus by the Buckeyes, and watched as the Wolverines celebrated on its home floor after losing the lone matchup of the season between the in-state rivals. Even in some of the team’s recent wins, players have looked shaky.
They needed to rally from double-digit deficits to beat Maryland and Penn State, and escaped Assembly Hall by the skin of their teeth against Indiana on Feb. 3, beating the lowly Hoosiers by a mere three points.
So labeling Purdue as the top dog in the conference is a fair assessment.
But on Feb. 10, MSU has a chance to prove it’s not only the most talented team in the Big Ten, but that it’s also the best team in the Big Ten.
It won’t be easy. The No. 3 and No. 4 teams in the nation matchup about evenly with each other by looking at the numbers, but Purdue features a group of experienced, battle-tested upperclassmen who surely won’t be afraid to go toe-to-toe with the Spartans.
MSU doesn’t absolutely need to win this game. The team will still likely be selected as a No. 2 seed at worst case scenario. But if the Spartans want to reclaim their spot as top dog in the Big Ten, they must win this game.