(AP) – Defense and rebounding have been the trademarks of Tom Izzo's program for two decades and that has worked out well for Michigan State.
The Spartans have won a national championship and reached the Final Four seven times, including last year, since Izzo succeeded his mentor, Jud Heathcote.
No. 6 Michigan State, though, is scoring more it ever has under Izzo: The Spartans are averaging an Izzo-high 79.4 points going into Tuesday night's game at Ohio State.
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Michigan State (22-5, 9-5 Big Ten) is one-half game behind the fourth-place Buckeyes (18-10, 10-5) in conference play. The teams are trying to finish among the top four in the Big Ten to earn a spot in the conference tournament quarterfinals and to potentially avoid playing four games in as many days less than a week before the NCAA Tournament.
A week after ending Wisconsin's seven-game winning streak, the Spartans are hoping to stop Ohio State's four-game run.
''We're playing to get in the top four, maybe even to win a share of the Big Ten title,'' senior guard Denzel Valentine said. ''You never know, things can play out and we might be able to get a share.''
Anything appears to be possible with Valentine directing an offense that has options outside and in, and leading a team that might be playing its best at the right time. The Spartans have won six of their last seven games, losing only on the road to then-No. 18 Purdue by one point in overtime.
Valentine is averaging nearly 23 points, almost nine assists and eight rebounds over the last seven games. In double-digit wins over Indiana and Wisconsin, he joined former Baylor standout Pierre Jackson as the only two players from a major conference over the last 20 years to have at least 20 points and 10 assists in consecutive games, according to STATS.
''Individual goals are always something we strive for our players to accomplish,'' Izzo said. ''I'm not just a team-team-team-team guy because I believe those individual goals lead to team success. And sometimes team success helps with individual goals.''
Michigan State is making 8.8 3-pointers per game – easily the most in the Izzo era – with Valentine, Bryn Forbes, Eron Harris and Matt McQuaid each making at least 40 percent of their attempts beyond the arc.
Inside, forward Matt Costello has emerged as a go-to player and he has taken advantage of teams defending him with only one player because they don't want to leave his sharpshooting teammates open.
''I think we became a better defensive team,'' Izzo said after talking about his team's offensive production. ''We are leading the nation in rebounding margin again, and what that does with this team is it gets our fast break going.''
Yes, it all does come back to defense and rebounding at Michigan State. As much as Izzo enjoys watching the Spartans score in an array of ways, he knows a bad shooting night can end the season in the one-and-done tournaments if they don't defend and rebound well.
''You get into the Big Ten tournament or the NCAA Tournament where every possession matters and things tighten up a little bit, I guess you can win some games with the 3-point shot,'' he said. ''But I would rather rely on what the staples have gotten us over the last 20 years.”
Ohio State is still in need of a signature victory to bolster its NCAA Tournament credentials, with its 74-67 triumph over then-No. 4 Kentucky on Dec. 19 its only one in five games against ranked opponents. The Buckeyes will visit the Spartans on March 5 to conclude the regular season after a home contest against No. 8 Iowa on Sunday, but coach Thad Matta is not focused on the difficult stretch run, only this game.
“I think Michigan State, now that they're healthy, are as good as anybody in the country,” Matta said. “To think ahead or look behind wouldn't do us much good. I think the focus has to be on us, and having a great practice, play well.”
Freshman guard JaQuan Lyle scored all 19 of his points after halftime in Saturday's 65-62 overtime victory at Nebraska, but it was Ohio State's defense that again took center stage. It has held opponents to 35.5 percent shooting in the four straight victories after stifling the Cornhuskers at 27.1 percent.
Ohio State has also limited opponents to 27.4 percent from beyond the arc during its win streak and is fifth in the Big Ten defensively at 32.6 percent.