#5 Michigan State Looks to Correct Previous Poor Performance versus #13 Penn State Today
There is an old adage about grabbing a Tiger by the tail. For the Lions, they better be careful that they might have just grabbed a Spartans by his shield!
Last night Penn State took down the Nebraska Cornhuskers in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament. That punched their ticket to today’s 2:30 PM tilt with Michigan State. The teams have only played once this year, and that was at the famed Palestra in Philadelphia. The Lions won that contest 72-63 on January 7.
PSU head coach Pat Chambers said of today’s game with the Spartans after his team took down the Huskers, “We got to play hard, defend, rebound, bring some energy. Everybody is going to tell them, How you going to be ready? They're 18-22. This is what they live for. They would rather not practice. They would rather play 30 games in 30 days. Trust me (laughter). Hopefully these young legs are ready to play. It's the minds that we got to work on, make sure they're fresh. We'll do that.”
The Spartans played one of their worst games of the season the last times these two teams met. MSU would like a shot at them; in fact Nick Ward told me earlier this week at practice that, “Of course you want to see them. You want to see anyone that beat you, but that would be more personal.”
While historically MSU vs PSU are not rivals, it has become one as of late. Consider this statistic: Michigan State leads the all-time series against Penn State 36-8, although the Nittany Lions are 3-0 when playing at a neutral site and 2-0 in the Big Ten Tournament.
Think about the Spartans history in this tournament and it is hard to not be impressed. Via Matt Larson the MSU SID you can see the legacy for yourselves. “The Spartans are looking to capture their sixth Big Ten Tournament championship, as they are the only Big Ten team with five tournament titles. In 19 previous years of the Big Ten Tournament, MSU has a record of 27-14. The Spartans won the tournament in 1999, 2000, 2012, 2014 and 2016, and lost in the quarterfinals in 1998, 2001, 2002, 2005, 2007 and 2010. MSU lost in the semifinals in 2003, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2009, 2011, and 2013, and dropped the 2015 title game in overtime.”
Izzo said of this year’s Big Ten Tournament that, “We have had great success in this tournament in the last five years. We are headed into D.C. with that same mindset. The tournament to me is as wide open as it has ever been. Purdue has earned the right to be the favorite. I don’t think anybody else is playing as good as they are. There are some hotter teams in the middle of the pack, but not at the top. They are so many teams capable of putting together a run. I think we are one of them.”
While Spartan fans might be concerned that the Spartans finished 2-2 in their last four games, Izzo thinks the Spartans are actually playing pretty well and Izzo sees reasons to be encouraged.
Izzo said of his Spartans heading into today, “I think we are playing pretty well. We have won six out of 10, but have lost two in a row. In those four losses we are averaging 10.8 turnovers a game, which is great. We are shooting much much better from the foul line which is great, especially during one and done time. We are executing much better. I thought we executed very well at Maryland we just didn’t make some shots. Which we are doing, I think second or third best in the league in that. The most important thing is that our guys are continuing to get better. Miles (Bridges) is getting better and I thought Cassius (Winston) is getting better and I thought Nick (Ward) is getting better. Josh (Langford) had like five really really good games, but struggled in the last two. They are all going to have some ups and downs, but I think it is critical for him (Langford) to have a big weekend for us too.”
Just how much as MSU improved? Through the first 15 games of the season, Michigan State ranked 337th in the nation in free-throw percentage at .612. Since then, the Spartans have made a dramatic improvement. Over the last 16 contests, MSU is shooting .721 at the charity stripe (196-272).
Chambers reflected on the win of the Lions at the Palestra as a turning point for Penn State this season and a key for last night’s win and a key for any success today. “I mean, that was a huge win for us at the Palestra, so many levels. Today, to learn from past experiences from the Big Ten, to be able to not think those negative thoughts, come out and compete the way we did in that overtime, it just shows you the character of this team. We'll go out tomorrow, we'll compete. We'll get ready tonight. We just got to compete, have a great mindset, see what happens.”
That quote really quantifies the mindset of the two programs. While Penn State is just thankful to have won, MSU thinks about Final Fours all the time. Even at 18-13 Izzo’s mindset is playing in Early April. He thinks this team can make a run, but it has to master the little things that have plagued them all year. Despite those things, he thinks they are improving.
“You’ve got to make free throws and we have done that better. You can’t turn it over and sometimes we have done an average job at that. What is controllable is that we felt we lost the Illinois game on a missed free throw that they hit a three on and two out of bounds plays that they hit a three on. That is nine points. We thought the Maryland game that they had an out of bounds play that they hit a three on a play that a guy just made a mistake. That to me is controllable. We are going to spend more times on those things that we think are controllable and let’s face it; in both of those games one three was the difference in the game. Even though on paper it will look like if Nick makes the layup we win the game, that wasn’t on purpose that was because it just happened. A missed assignment is a lack of something. A missed cut a free throw and everyone knows that there is a missed assignment. We are trying to capitalize on free throw shooting and turnovers and point blank assignments we have to do a better job and let teams getting offensive rebounds. Those things are inexcusable and have at least cost us one game.”
While some would scoff at Izzo’s continuous positivity in March, consider his resume this time of year. Izzo dominates in March. Per Larson, “Michigan State is 93-38 (.710) in March since the 1998-99 season. For his career, Tom Izzo is 100-45 (.690) in March. Over the last seven-plus years (2009-present), MSU is 47-18 (.723) in what Coach Izzo calls his favorite month of the year.”
Lamar Stevens scored 18 points and Tony Carr had 14 to lead Penn State the last time these two teams played and afterwards Tom Izzo declared that former walk on Matt Van Dyk was the, “Only player that played well.” That was in January and this is March. He has reminded his players since the season ended in Maryland about that last game and there is a redemptive quantifier for the Spartans today.
While Penn State has certainly improved, they haven’t at the rate or ability of the Spartans. If MSU can avoid the brutal matchup with Purdue, they have a shot to be playing for a Big Ten Tournament title. For now they just want to win and advance to a showdown tomorrow at 2:30 PM with Minnesota right back here in this building.