Sixth place? Please. Spartans are as good as it gets in Big Ten

SHARE Sixth place? Please. Spartans are as good as it gets in Big Ten

EAST LANSING, MICH. — Hall of Fame football coach Bill Parcells famously said it.

“You are what your record says you are.”

A lot of folks agree with that check-your-nuance-at-the-door sentiment. Michigan State basketball coach Tom Izzo probably is one of them.

But Izzo’s Spartans are 8-5 in Big Ten play — in a three-way tie for sixth place in the conference — and there can’t possibly be anyone out there who believes seven league teams are at least as good as MSU.

In a strange season in college basketball — no dominant teams, volatility in every major conference — the No. 8-ranked, 21-5 Spartans are perhaps the biggest oddity. Due in part to an injury that cost senior star Denzel Valentine four games (and a few more knocking off the rust), they’re looking up at Iowa, Maryland, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin in the standings.

“Man, I hate looking at those standings,” senior forward Matt Costello said. “Every time I look, I just cringe.”

Costello and his teammates know this is no middle-of-the-pack team. That’s what Michigan State was in 2006-07 and 2007-08, when it had back-to-back 8-8 finishes in the Big Ten (tying for sixth and seventh, respectively) and wheezed into each postseason already in double figures in losses overall. Those were two of the least successful squads Izzo has had in his two decades atop the program.

This team? Record be damned, it may be one of his best.

The Spartans have the most well-rounded player in the country in Valentine — a triple-double threat every time he takes the floor — and one of the nation’s finest shooters in Bryn Forbes. They lead all Big Ten teams in scoring margin, rebounding margin and assists and are No. 1 in the league at both shooting the three and defending the three.

Really, MSU kind of has it all. Even if all includes a pair of losses to first-place Iowa and a trio of one-point defeats against Wisconsin, Nebraska and Purdue. Even if all doesn’t wind up including the program’s ninth consecutive top-four finish in the league standings.

Not that the Spartans can’t still finish fourth or better. There’s a lot of green left in this Big Ten putt.

“This is the real time of year now,” Izzo said. “Great players have to answer the bell during the biggest stages and the biggest moments of the year, and we’re getting near that time. I’m excited about where we are, because I think we’re starting to play better for longer stretches.”

The Spartans are on a 5-1 mini-tear that has claimed three of the teams ahead of them — Maryland, Michigan and Indiana — as victims. Wisconsin, on a hot streak of its own, will be here on Thursday.

Izzo’s players are taking it one game at a time, of course, but the team they’re dying to meet again is, of course, Iowa. That’ll have to happen in the Big Ten tournament — or maybe down the line in the NCAA tourney, where Izzo will be seeking his eighth Final Four appearance.

The Hawkeyes beat MSU handily when Valentine was out, then did so again — here, no less — in Valentine’s second game after returning from knee surgery.

“It is what it is. We lost to them. They were the better team that day,” Valentine said. “But I feel like we can beat them. When the time comes, if we match up against them, I feel like we’ll get them.”

Be clear on this: It won’t be an upset if they do.

GAMES OF THE WEEK

No. 20 Duke at No. 5 North Carolina (Wednesday, 8 p.m., ESPN): The Blue Devils have won three straight and 10 of the last 13 in college basketball’s best rivalry series. On the other hand, this’ll be the first time in 18 meetings they aren’t ranked in the top 10. Huge opportunity for Marcus Paige, Brice Johnson and the Tar Heels.

Wisconsin at No. 8 Michigan State (Thursday, 8 p.m., ESPN): The Badgers have completely turned around their season with a seven-game winning streak that began with a one-point victory over the Spartans. Nobody’s keeping Wisconsin out of the NCAA tourney if it pulls off another surprise here.

No. 3 Oklahoma at No. 10 West Virginia (Saturday, 3 p.m., ESPN): Wasn’t it just like Kansas to sneak past both of these outstanding squads in the Big 12 standings? But nevermind that — this matchup of the Sooners’ league-best offense and the Mountaineers’ league-best defense will feel every bit like a title fight.

TRENDING

Up: No. 2 Kansas. The Jayhawks ended January with a victory over Kentucky and have kept the pedal to the metal since, going 5-0 — and knocking off both West Virginia and Oklahoma — in February.

Down: No. 16 Oregon. Back-to-back road losses to Cal and Stanford didn’t cost the Ducks their chance to win the Pac-12, but combined they were a game-changer for a team that had been looking like a potential No. 1 seed in the Big Dance.

Up: No. 14 Kentucky. Watch out — the Wildcats may have a disappointing six losses overall, but they’ve won their last three games by monstrous blowout. We know how John Calipari can get a team to peak late.

Down: Melo Trimble, Maryland. The star guard has missed 23 of 27 shots over his last three outings. For those of you scoring at home, that’s not good.

BIG NUMBERS

19.5, 7.1: Speaking of Denzel Valentine, those are his season scoring and assist averages — each ranking him No. 1 among all Big Ten players. The last player to lead the conference in both categories was Iowa’s Andre Woolridge in 1996-97.

Follow me on Twitter @slgreenberg.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes.com

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