The last time Michigan State opened Big Ten play with three consecutive victories it won a national championship.
While it remains to be seen if the No. 8 Spartans are a national title contender, they’ll look to continue their recent run of success in the conference home opener against Ohio State on Tuesday night.
Michigan State (11-2, 2-0) joined Wisconsin as the only teams to go undefeated through the first week of Big Ten play. It started with a 70-58 victory at then-No. 21 Minnesota on New Year’s Eve then followed that with a 77-66 victory over a pesky Northwestern team Saturday for its seventh straight win since being routed by North Carolina on Dec. 3.
“What’s encouraging is I don’t think we’re even approaching our ceiling as a team,” said Spartans coach Tom Izzo, whose 1999-2000 team started 3-0 in league play on its way to winning the school’s most recent national championship.
Though there’s still two months left in the regular season to determine the Spartans’ overall chances, they are playing well enough to stake their claim as an early favorite in the conference race.
While the Spartans played well enough offensively (43.7 percent shooting from the field and 44.1 percent from 3-point range) against the Gophers and Wildcats, their defense held both opponents to a combined 39.8 percent shooting. That still wasn’t enough to completely satisfy Izzo.
“I know how good the league is,” Izzo said. “I also know we’ve got to be getting better every game.”
Raymar Morgan, a Canton, Ohio native, had 22 points and 13 rebounds against Northwestern after posting 10 and 10 boards versus the Gophers to earn conference player of the week honors. The 6-foot-8 junior is the team leader with 15.4 points and 6.8 rebounds per contest.
It’s not a coincidence that a portion of Michigan State’s current winning stretch has come with 6-10 senior Goran Suton back in the lineup after missing six games with a knee injury. Suton is averaging 11.0 points and 6.7 rebounds in five games since returning.
“We’re starting to head in the direction that we can sub properly and not by necessity,” Izzo said. “If we can continue to do that, we’ll become a better team.”
Michigan State usually plays better in the confines of the Breslin Center where it has won 25 in a row dating to a loss to then-No. 4 Ohio State on Feb. 3, 2007.
“(Breslin) is a great environment,” said Ohio State coach Thad Matta, whose team lost 66-60 at Michigan State on Jan. 15.
These rivals split their two regular-season meetings in 2007-08 while the Spartans won 67-60 in the Big Ten tournament.
Ohio State (10-2, 1-1) dropped out of the rankings after falling 68-59 at Minnesota on Saturday for its second loss in three games.
Still trying to get through at least another month without experienced junior swingman David Lighty to a broken foot suffered last month, the Buckeyes trailed by 10 at halftime, were outrebounded 42-30 and shot 34.6 percent for the game.
“We’ve got to just take responsibility and grow up,” sophomore leading scorer Evan Turner said. “We’ve got to grow up, for crying out loud, and play our roles. Don’t even mention Lighty. Lighty’s gone. Lighty’s gone.”
Turner had 21 against the Gophers and is averaging 16.2 points per game. He was held to 16 total points in three games versus Michigan State last season.