ROSEMONT, Ill. — Throughout the course of what has been a challenging and emotional season both on and off the court, Tom Izzo has gone back to coaching basics — and it seems to be working.
No. 2 Michigan State (25-3, 13-2 Big Ten) has won nine straight, including a thrilling 68-65 victory over previously third-ranked Purdue on a last-second 3-pointer, and is now off to the best start in program history following an 87-57 win at Minnesota on Tuesday.
The Spartans travel to Northwestern on Saturday for their fourth road outing in the last five games.
“As I’m learning this year more than any year, I’m going to control the things I can control,” Izzo said. “The only thing I can control is to get my team ready to go play and make sure our energy and our focus is in the right spot.”
Michigan State has never played a game in All State Arena, Northwestern’s temporary home venue this season. The Spartans will likely have their first team shoot-around just hours before the 2 p.m. ET tip-off due to a concert by country music group Little Big Horn, which will take place Friday night in the multi-purpose venue.
Northwestern (15-12, 6-8) is also coming off a lengthy road stretch, but will play three of its last four regular-season games at home. Five of the Wildcats’ previous six games were on the road, but back-to-back road losses to Maryland and Rutgers had Chris Collins eager to return home.
“We’ve got to get home and get rested and get ready for (Michigan State),” Collins said. “We just had a stretch of five of six on the road. We won three of them. We’ve only got a couple days to get ready for obviously a great Michigan State team.”
As if facing the top scoring team in the conference wasn’t enough of a challenge, the Wildcats could be short-handed against Michigan State. Senior point guard Bryant McIntosh is listed as questionable for Saturday’s game after sustaining an injury to his right shoulder in Tuesday’s 67-58 overtime loss at Rutgers.
McIntosh is the second-leading scorer on the team, averaging 12.1 points, and ranks third in the conference in assists with an average of 5.2.
Even if McIntosh can go, the Wildcats will have their hands full. Northwestern has not beaten Michigan State since an 81-74 home win on Jan. 19, 2012, losing its last eight attempts. Izzo is 34-4 against Northwestern during his 23-year tenure.
With the end of the regular season in sight, and the Big Ten tournament less than two weeks away, Michigan State and No. 8 Ohio State are tied atop the conference standings following the Buckeyes’ 79-56 loss at Penn State on Thursday night.
Sophomore standout Miles Bridges, who leads the Spartans in scoring with 17.6 points per game and has been named a finalist for both the 50th Citizen Naismith Trophy and the John R. Wooden Award, said the team can’t focus on Ohio State at this point in the season.
“We really don’t pay attention to that anymore, we just try to stay focused on what we need to do,” said Bridges, who surprised many by forgoing last year’s NBA draft to return to school. “If we don’t get better, and they continue to win and they’re getting better, then when we face them, we’re going to end up losing, so we just want to focus on getting better and continue to win.”
While Ohio State holds a tiebreaker over the Spartans by virtue of the Buckeyes’ 80-64 victory at then top-ranked Michigan State on Jan. 7, the tiebreaker will determine the seeding for the conference tournament.
If the Spartans win out, they will at least share a portion of the Big Ten regular-season title for the first time since 2012. The last time Michigan State won the title outright was 2009.