Tom Izzo does not like the idea of "adjusting goals," and when asked about it after Saturday's 86-76 loss at Purdue -- a loss that dropped his Spartans three games behind Big Ten-leading and No. 1-ranked Ohio State -- Izzo angrily called it a "dumb question."
His players were more practical, though, for a team that was ranked No. 2 in the preseason yet has reached seven losses faster than any Michigan State team since 2003-04.
"It's probably out of reach," junior forward Draymond Green said of a third straight Big Ten title.
In fact, it's not outrageous to start talking NCAA "bubble" for this team. The Spartans have great strength of schedule and RPI numbers, but they also probably need to win seven of their final 11 regular-season games to feel comfortable about getting the program's 14th straight NCAA Tournament bid.
Still, Izzo and his players were encouraged by a lot of things during a week that saw losses at Illinois and Purdue. The Spartans are taking care of the ball, rebounding and defending better. Michigan State has gone cold lately from outside, but Green and forward Delvon Roe were a dynamic interior combination against Purdue, combining for 37 points and 15 rebounds.
"We're going to work and we're going to get better," Izzo vowed after the loss. "We're going to be a better team."
Said Roe: "We might not win the Big Ten championship, but at the same time, we're right there."
With home games against Michigan and Indiana in the coming week, the Spartans will have a chance to start feeling better about themselves. Barring a collapse by the Buckeyes, though, another Big Ten banner is not a potential reward for improved play.
--Junior F Delvon Roe took another step toward his goal of being named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, but you wouldn't know it by the box score. Roe checked Purdue star F JaJuan Johnson, who finished with 20 points. However, Johnson never got by Roe and had to make some tough, contested jumpers -- along with six late free throws with MSU trying to catch up and fouling -- to get his points. Last week, Roe stymied stars John Shurna and Jon Leuer.
--Road success has been a huge part of Michigan State's success over the past two seasons. The Spartans were 8-1 in Big Ten road games in 2008-09, en route to winning the title by a four-game margin. Last season, Michigan State was 7-2 on the road. Entering the week, the Spartans were 1-3 on the road this season -- matching the total number of Big Ten road losses in the past two seasons combined.
--The biggest problem in November has become a non-issue in late January. The Spartans have now committed 11 or fewer turnovers in seven of their past 10 games. This after averaging 17 turnovers a game in early-season losses to Connecticut, Duke and Syracuse. Michigan State is 7-1 when committing fewer turnovers than its opponent, and 5-6 when committing more.
BY THE NUMBERS: 8 -- Number of RPI top-25 teams the Spartans have played this season, the most in the nation as of a Jan. 22 loss at Purdue.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "Don't even ask me that question. You know what, I'm gonna try win a Big Ten championship until the last day." -- Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, asked if he is throwing in the towel on the Big Ten race.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAMES:
--vs. Michigan, Jan. 27
KEY MATCHUPS: The Spartans must be able to keep Michigan sophomore G Darius Morris out of the lane. Keith Appling has emerged as the team's best perimeter defender, but he gives up about four inches to Morris. The Wolverines have no one who matches up with will F Draymond Green, which could mean lots of zone from John Beilein's team.
--vs. Indiana, Jan. 30
KEY MATCHUPS: Just like Michigan, Indiana has a big, rangy guard as its primary playmaker, and Keith Appling will have to make up for the size disparity with quickness. Delvon Roe must keep active F Christian Watford off the glass.
FUTURES MARKET: Tom Izzo was forced to use fullcourt pressure to help the Spartans come back and beat Wisconsin and Northwestern last week, and Izzo said that pressure could re-emerge as an occasional device this season. Michigan State did not use any -- other than in the final seconds while fouling -- at Illinois or Purdue. Still, don't rule it out as a possibility. Izzo likes how it takes some time off the shot clock and forces teams to scramble at times to get a play going. He used fullcourt, man pressure regularly in the 2004-05 season.
--Freshman SG Russell Byrd finally is practicing, nine months after breaking a bone in his left foot. The promising 6-7 shooter still will redshirt, but he will be able to give the Spartans better looks in practice as part of the scout team. Byrd had to have a second surgery on the foot in October after it didn't heal properly the first time.