A conference championship already won and NCAA Tournament seeding somewhat secure, the Michigan State Spartans prepare for the start of their Big Ten Tournament in a strange, but somewhat familiar position.
The Spartans will play their first postseason game Friday at 12:30 ET, and found out their opponent after Ohio State beat Indiana. With that game in the books, Michigan State avoids an Indiana team that has already beaten them twice and instead plays a Buckeyes squad they have swept so far this season.
Ohio State looked like a new team with the return of Kaleb Wesson, who missed the final three regular-season games due to suspension. With their star forward in place, OSU repeatedly held Indiana at arm’s-length and survived a late charge. The Spartans will likely use a now-healthy Nick Ward, along with Kenny Goins and Xavier Tillman, to help slow Wesson down.
For the Spartans, the Big Ten Tournament will be an odd combination of getting some players game-ready, while possibly easing off the gas with others. Ward hasn’t seen the court since the last time MSU faced Ohio State, missing the last six games. Izzo hinted in his press conference that Ward likely wouldn’t be fully up to game speed for the tournament opener, but it should be a good opportunity to get the forward ready for the NCAA Tournament. Additionally, freshman like Aaron Henry, Foster Loyer and Thomas Kithier will need to be leaned on, as they get their first taste of postseason basketball.
On the other hand, all rest is good rest for Cassius Winston. The all-everything point guard has been dealing with knee tendonitis and with the main goal of making a deep run in the NCAA Tournament, the Big Ten should be looked at as more of a chance to stay game-ready, without taxing his body. The same can be said for his backcourt running-mate, Matt McQuaid, who is not only crucial to the MSU offense, but often is tasked with guarding the best opponent.
If the Spartans survive Ohio State, they will again play the early game of the day on Saturday against either Nebraska or Wisconsin. MSU is 3-0 against the two teams this season. The Cornhuskers have been the early surprise of the tournament, beating Rutgers then upsetting Maryland all with a severely limited bench. Saturday’s game will tip at 1 pm.
For now, the importance of the Big Ten Tournament is up for debate. They would need to likely win the tournament and get a little help to move into a one-seed, and even a loss to Ohio State shouldn’t push them out of a two. There is also the desire to get postseason experience and obviously to raise another banner, but that may be outweighed by needing to rest the most important players to the team.