Disjointed and soft, Michigan State basketball was a mess just over a week ago.
There was a 30-point loss at home to Iowa on Feb. 13 and a 10-point defeat at Purdue just three days later. Sitting at 10-9 and 4-9 in Big Ten play, it seemed to be a foregone conclusion MSU’s 22-year streak of making the NCAA Tournament would come to an end.
And then this group started to show the resiliency and toughness Tom Izzo’s teams have become known for. MSU bounced back from a 13-point deficit to win at Indiana on Saturday, 78-71, before earning a signature 81-72 victory against No. 5 Illinois on Tuesday.
Suddenly, MSU’s tourney chances are alive.
“I forgot what it’s like to be the hunter role,” Izzo told reporters on Monday before the Illinois game. “We’ve been the hunted more than the huntee … I’ve been an underdog all my life.”
Despite all its struggles, MSU may still control its own fate given its difficult schedule down the stretch. It continues when the Spartans host No. 4 Ohio State on Thursday at 9 p.m. Then, MSU faces two other bubble teams in the Big Ten when it travels to Maryland on Sunday before hosting Indiana in a rematch on Tuesday.
MSU then closes the regular season with two matchups against No. 3 rival Michigan. And sure, it’s unlikely MSU runs the table to close the regular season, but if the Spartans can record another win over a top five team and knock off another bubble group, MSU may have a strong enough resume to make the NCAA tourney for a 23rd straight time.
But it starts on Thursday. MSU opened as a 6-point sports betting underdog for its rematch with Ohio State. The Buckeyes won the last matchup on Jan. 31, 79-62. That’s when MSU was still soft and had no offensive identity.
A big part of MSU’s offensive issues was not having a go-to scorer in key situations or when it struggled to produce a basket. The Spartans have found it difficult to replace All-American point guard Cassius Winston and his playmaking abilities throughout the season. That’s why it’s no surprise the team’s turnaround coincides with someone making the offensive leap into the role left by Winston. And that’s Aaron Henry.
MSU’s best pro prospect has been a role player the previous two seasons, with him used primarily as a defensive stopper and secondary option on the offensive end. He’s the team’s leading scorer this season at 15.2 points per game but has failed to consistently deliver against premier competition or in moments the team looked lost on offense. However, that’s changed over the last two games.
Against Indiana, Henry scored 27 points on 9 of 17 shooting and then followed up that performance with 20 points against Illinois while converting 9 of 19 shots. He’s MSU’s most versatile scorer with his ability to hit 3s, post-up or utilize his athleticism to attack the rim, and he’s finally started to put it all together.
You can live with missed shots and off nights because that’s part of basketball. But what has been most frustrating from this MSU group has been the moments it was pushed around or appeared soft. Izzo’s teams have always had an inherent toughness to them, and that has been noticeably lacking throughout the season. Getting blown out by an Iowa by 30 at home is soft.
The Illinois game was the team’s best performance of the season, and the Spartans flew around on defense and weren’t afraid to get physical. It resulted in Illinois converting just 24 of 60 shots (40%).
And if there’s any doubting the physicality MSU brought, there are these postgame quotes from Illinois.
"They mucked the game up and made it ugly," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said.
“They punched us in the mouth,” Illinois guard Trent Frazier added.
Perhaps ths new identity will be enough for MSU to sneak into the NCAA tournament. It would be one of Izzo’s greatest coaching turnarounds, which is saying something considering his resume.
MSU won outright as 6.5-point underdogs at Indiana and as a 7-point underdog against Illinois. That brings MSU’s record against the spread to 6-15, which is tied for the 12th-worst mark in the country. MSU’s recent success is just the second time this season it has covered two games consecutively.
Since Michigan launched its online sports betting and internet casino gaming platforms on Jan. 22, MSU is 3-6 against the spread.