After a poor showing at the Palestra over the weekend, Michigan State (12-6) was able to restore some of its pride with a 65-47 trouncing of 24th-ranked Minnesota on Wednesday night. The victory completed a season sweep of the Golden Gophers for the Spartans, who you might recall pulled off a pivotal overtime thriller in Minneapolis on Dec. 27.
Those victories have given Michigan State life and legitimacy in the Big Ten. And if the Spartans go on to have a good January and February, chances are Tom Izzo will look back at this pair of wins as the building blocks to a saved season.
Wednesday night was the 250th Big Ten victory in Izzo's career, which puts him third in league history behind Bob Knight (353) and Gene Keady (265).
The result's interesting on three fronts. Let's break it down quickly.
1. Michigan State kept its Big Ten regular-season title hopes alive
Winning this game puts Michigan State atop the Big Ten standings for at least 24 hours. Purdue will play at Iowa on Thursday night and can match MSU's 4-1 league mark with a W there. A loss here, coupled with the loss to Penn State over the weekend, would have put MSU out of mind as a contender for the Big Ten regular-season title.
Instead, Sparty gets a critical victory in advance of road games against Ohio State (that one coming Sunday) and Indiana (on Jan. 21). Splitting those would be totally acceptable, but it's not going to be easy. OSU and IU have taken rocks to the face in league play already, and now they're desperate. If Michigan State can play with the desperate poise it showed against Minnesota, it's going to steal at least one of those two on the road.
2. Minnesota's no guarantee to get to the NCAA Tournament
I have no interest in downplaying one of the better stories in college basketball this season. Did you check Gary Parrish's column on Minnesota? Give it a glance. See, the Golden Gophers went 8-23 last year, including 2-17 against Big Ten teams.
Getting to 11 or 12 wins this season would have been enough.
The team's already at 15. Now it's at three losses, but the good record doesn't translate to a surefire path to the NCAAs just yet. Look at that non-conference slate. Victories against UT Arlington, St. John's, Vanderbilt, Arkansas ... yeah, UT Arlington's probably the best of that group, and it comes from a one-bid league. So now Minnesota's going to need to accrue significant victories in the Big Ten to secure itself. It has road Ws against Purdue and Northwestern, so there's plenty of insurance for now.
But by nature of this loss, Richard Pitino's team will have a very hard time winning the conference title after getting to a 3-1 start. By dropping games to MSU, it's hard to figure the Gophers will be able to leap past MSU the rest of the way. Let's see how Minnesota responds with a road game at Penn State on Saturday, then home to Wisconsin, then at Ohio State. If Minnesota can go 2-1 there, it will sit at 17-4 and have a much firmer tournament case.
3. Izzo made the right call bailing on his four-frosh starting lineup
Michigan State's defense was stout on Wednesday. This might have been the team's best performance all season, and a big part of that was putting junior Tum-Tum Nairn back into the starting lineup, with Izzo opting to bring freshman Cassius Winston off the bench instead. Nairn is a team captain, a good leader, as tough a player as Izzo has got this year.
Minnesota was held to 0.7 points per possession -- just an anemic rate and all because of how active the Spartans were.
"There was energy, and I thought that was the big difference," Izzo said on Big Ten Network.
Minnesota freshman Amir Coffey, who has been a top-20 freshman this year, had only four points. MSU's Miles Bridges is breaking back into form, scoring 16, blocking four shots and grabbing six rebounds. MSU hasn't been great from the line this season, shooting 69 percent as a team, but was 82 percent (14 for 17) from the stripe here.
We've still got a lonnnnng way to go with MSU but on Wednesday, against a Top 25 team, it was the Spartans, not the Gophers, who looked like they should be ranked.