After dealing with injuries and inconsistent play over the last six weeks, Michigan State is hoping to erase that difficult stretch with deep runs in the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.
The 22nd-ranked Spartans have a chance at earning the No. 2 seed for the conference tournament if they can win at Ohio State on Sunday and get some help.
Michigan State (23-7, 12-5) was 18-1 and ranked No. 3 in the AP poll before Branden Dawson - one of the Big Ten's top rebounders at 8.6 per game - broke his right hand in frustration during a film session Jan. 23. It's since gone 5-6 and split the two games since his return March 1.
The Spartans have also dealt with a seven-game absence by second-leading scorer and rebounder Adreian Payne (sprained foot), and Keith Appling is playing through wrist and hip injuries that caused him to miss three games.
Appling shook off those ailments Thursday while helping Michigan State move back into a tie for second in the conference with an 86-76 win over No. 24 Iowa. With 12 points, the senior guard had his first double-digit scoring performance since Jan. 28.
Travis Trice, Appling's replacement in the starting lineup, had a season-high 17 off the bench to lead five players in double figures. The Spartans were finally fully healthy with Dawson's return March 1, but struggled to a season low in points in a 53-46 home loss to Illinois.
Thursday's win, though, has Michigan State - ranked No. 1 from Nov. 18-Dec. 8 - once again focused on living up to its billing as a national title contender.
"We've got to get on the road now and get to the Final Four," Payne said of a goal achieved by every other four-year class in coach Tom Izzo's 19 seasons. "There have been a lot of excuses. Now, it's time to man-up and do what we need to do."
Michigan State could aid its chances of reaching its first Final Four since 2010 with a Big Ten tournament championship, which could boost its NCAA seeding. The Spartans would be the No. 2 seed with a win plus a loss by ninth-ranked Wisconsin at Nebraska since the Badgers beat Michigan State 60-58 on Feb. 9.
Thanks to Iowa's loss to Illinois on Saturday, Ohio State (22-8, 9-8) can claim the No. 4 seed for the league tournament with a win Sunday and a Nebraska loss. The Buckeyes split their two games with the Cornhuskers but suffered only one loss to regular-season champ Michigan compared with Nebraska's two defeats.
They'll finish no better than fifth if Nebraska wins and would slip to sixth with a loss to the Spartans.
Like Michigan State, the Buckeyes have dealt with inconsistency this season. They were 15-0 and ranked third in the country when they lost 72-68 in overtime at the then-No. 5 Spartans on Jan. 7.
That loss started a four-game skid for Ohio State, its longest in six seasons. The Buckeyes followed that by winning seven of nine before losing a pair of road games, including a 72-64 setback at Indiana last Sunday in which they went 0 for 11 from 3-point range.
Leading scorers LaQuinton Ross and Lenzelle Smith Jr. were the only players in double figures with 19 points apiece as the rest of the Buckeyes went a combined 9 for 33.
"I think we're lacking in a confidence issue, we're lacking a toughness issue in terms of playing through situations," coach Thad Matta said. "Those are things that somehow, some way, we've got to get corrected."
Appling, who hit the tiebreaking 3-pointer with 29 seconds left in OT in the January victory, will try to help Michigan State avoid a fifth loss in seven trips to Columbus.