The Northwestern Wildcats' Welsh-Ryan Arena in Evanston, Ill. is a challenging venue to play at, and so is the Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, home to the Michigan Wolverines.
And coach Tom Izzo's Michigan State Spartans, who were ranked ninth in the most recent Associated Press polls, found that out the hard way, dropping consecutive games to the Wildcats and Wolverines within the past week and snapping a 15-game win streak.
While the Spartans (15-4, 4-2) could have used at least one win during that stretch, they're still in the thick of an early race in the Big Ten that promises to play out to a memorable finish. Just six games through the conference slate, for most teams, anyway, the Spartans are among a group of four two-loss teams, and the likes of Indiana, which has lost four, and Wisconsin, which has three losses, are essentially clinging to slim chances of catching up to conference-leader Illinois, and contenders Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State.
In the grand scheme of things for Izzo's Spartans, early road losses could prove to be a positive, energizing the team for an important five-game stretch, which includes four at the Breslin Center, where they've yet to lose this season (11-0).
Michigan State will likely benefit from hosting a struggling, but unpredictable, Purdue Boilermakers (14-5, 4-2) squad in East Lansing, and then Tubby Smith's equally perplexing Minnesota Golden Gophers (14-5, 2-4), who have shown signs of life. While each team is capable of giving the Spartans fits, it's unlikely they'll come out with wins at the Breslin Center if Michigan State returns to form.
A road trip to Illinois is the obvious, glaring hurdle for the Spartans, who will have to endure trips to Indiana and Ohio State—assuming they win-out at home—in order to get their first Big Ten title since winning back-to-back crowns starting in 2008-09.
One has to like the Spartans' chances of escaping a rigorous conference slate with five or less losses, possibly four, given their history at the Breslin Center under Izzo. Two early losses may be cause for some to to worry, but rest assured that getting road games at Michigan and Northwestern out of the way somewhat lessens the load—Welsh-Ryan and Crisler are both arenas with somewhat mysterious home-court advantages.
The Buckeyes still have trips to Michigan, Michigan State, Wisconsin, among others, left on their schedule. Don't forget a date at Northwestern, either. Among those four, Ohio State, assuming it can win-out at home, would have to take two, in all likelihood, to win the Big Ten.
Indiana, with four losses already, has to go to Purdue, Wisconsin and Michigan—and with four losses, the likelihood of the Hoosiers running the table, especially with its upcoming road opponents looming, is very slim.
Wisconsin, with three losses, has a road duel with Illinois, the Big Ten's only one-loss team, on Sunday, along with trips to East Lansing and Ohio State to contend with. Again, assuming the Badgers win-out at home, getting away with less than five road losses will be a task.
While Illinois has just one loss, games at Ohio State, Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin have yet to be played. The current scenario suggests, if both teams remain steady, that Michigan State, Michigan and Illinois could be considered the Big Ten's front runners based on remaining schedule and number of losses to this point.
Considering the fact that the Spartans are a relatively young team with just one senior with considerable experience in Draymond Green, Michigan State should consider itself somewhat fortunate to be in the position it's in. Ohio State was the preseason pick to take the Big Ten, with Izzo's Spartans picked to finish in the top four. Somehow, like in 2010, when Izzo's team isn't expected to do much, it does the opposite. A trip to the Final Four might be a year or two away for Michigan State, but a third Big Ten title in the past four years is certainly attainable.
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