Michigan State still has a shot at a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament if it can forget about a bitter finish to the regular season and overcome a season-ending injury to its star freshman.
The eighth-ranked and top-seeded Spartans will try to help their cause by winning their first Big Ten tournament title since 2000. The push to end that drought begins Friday against ninth-seeded Iowa at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Michigan State (24-7) was denied its first outright Big Ten regular-season title in three years when Ohio State's William Buford hit a last-second shot to give the Buckeyes a 72-70 win in East Lansing on Sunday. The Spartans, who also fell at then-No. 18 Indiana on Feb. 28, had an early 15-point lead against Ohio State but wilted after Branden Dawson tore a ligament in his left knee.
The freshman swingman will likely need six months to recover from surgery.
Despite the consecutive losses, Michigan State won a piece of its third regular-season championship in four years, sharing the crown with Ohio State and Michigan. Winning more titles, however, could prove difficult without Dawson, the team's third-leading scorer (8.4 ppg) and second-best rebounder (4.5 per contest).
"We'll miss the size and the strength," coach Tom Izzo said of the Indiana native. "But we'll adapt in other ways. I still think this team has a chance to make a strong run."
Senior Brandon Wood, averaging 8.2 points, might start in place of Dawson. Freshmen Travis Trice, Brandan Kearney and Russell Byrd could also see more playing time.
Izzo might also adjust his lineup to put centers Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne on the court with conference player of the year Draymond Green.
"It'll give somebody else an opportunity," Izzo said. "Who knows who else might step up?"
He'll get a chance to find out against the Hawkeyes, who advanced to the quarterfinals by rallying for a 64-61 win over Illinois on Thursday. Leading scorer Matt Gatens (15.7 ppg) led the way with 20 points in that victory and is averaging 23.0 over the last six games while shooting 54.9 percent.
"I don't want to go home," said Gatens, who has also made 34 of his last 58 3-point attempts. "I want to keep playing, and I don't want to take this uniform off. And I think all the guys feel the same way."
The senior guard and his teammates will need a much better performance than what they showed during a 95-61 drubbing in East Lansing on Jan. 10. Green had 22 points and 10 rebounds in that victory and also shined in last season's tournament opener against the Hawkeyes.
He had 21 points and 14 rebounds, the most by a Michigan State player in a conference tournament game, during a 66-61 win. Gatens missed a potential tying 3-pointer with six seconds left as the Hawkeyes lost their third straight and eighth of nine in the series.
Michigan State is 7-7 when the Big Ten tournament has been held in Indianapolis, but has won five of its seven all-time quarterfinal games there.
- Michigan State
- Ohio State