INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. — With a week off from a busy basketball season, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo took his team on a trip.
The Spartans hit the road to travel four hours south for the Big Ten football championship. Decked in green and white and seated in the first rows of Lucas Oil Stadium, the Michigan State basketball players cheered on their football team to a conference title.
Coach Izzo was ready to round up the team and travel back to East Lansing, preparing for a late arrival and early morning. But the players weren’t wanting to leave.
“They said, ‘Coach, we have to stay for the ceremony,’” recalled Izzo.
So, the Spartans stayed in their seats and celebrated their football team’s victory. Surrounded by many Michigan State fans, they cheered for an hour after the clock hit zeroes.
“That was the way we started out our season, learning to win a championship from our football buddies,” Izzo said of the December evening in Indianapolis. “Now, we get to go out and win our own.”
In the Spartans’ return trip to the Circle City, they are vying for the conference crown. Wins over Northwestern and Wisconsin have them in position to take home the Big Ten Championship. The Spartans are playing their best basketball in the postseason—a March tradition like St. Patrick’s Day.
The tournament stretch of three games in three days—plus several practices before arriving at Bankers Life Fieldhouse—has proven to benefit a talented team that hasn’t had time to mesh. With the way this season has gone, the Spartans might struggle to recognize a teammate on the court.
Izzo has started 11 different players in his starting five, and nobody has started each of the team’s 33 games. In fact, only forwards Denzel Valentine and Gavin Schilling have played in every game. It affected the Spartans’ play.
“We didn’t play at a high level before,” said forward Adreian Payne. “We haven’t had time for people to all play together in a long time.”
Now, the Spartans are clicking on their court. Wins over the Wildcats and Badgers were never in doubt. Michigan State’s season has been filled with adversity, from countless injuries to a brutal nonconference schedule.
Getting to this point hasn’t been easy, not by any means.
“Honestly, it’s been the most difficult year of my career,” Izzo said. “I love this team. I said it at the beginning, the middle and the end [of the season]. This is one of the best teams that I’ve had here, but I haven’t been able to enjoy them.”
There’s plenty for Izzo to enjoy now. Gary Harris continues his NBA-level play to lead his team. Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson are both healthy and dominating in the paint. And guard Keith Appling is finally at full strength. A busy stretch of postseason play has Michigan State playing to its potential.
“That’s important for us,” Dawson said. “We’ve been playing great, and our chemistry is getting better.”
Standing in the way of the Spartans is their in-state rival, the Big Ten Tournament’s top-seeded team, Michigan. The atmosphere in Indianapolis should be electric.
“It’s the Fourth of July and Christmas,” Izzo said.
It’ll also be just like that December football game, where the Spartans got a taste of a Big Ten title.