Though a Big Ten regular-season title remains somewhat of a longshot, Michigan State appears zeroed in on a much greater goal.
Arguably the nation's most complete team over the past month, the sixth-ranked Spartans look to keep rolling in Sunday's home game with improving Penn State.
Having struggled on both ends during a three-game conference losing streak in mid-January, Michigan State (23-5, 10-5) has excelled in all facets in winning seven of eight since, with a one-point overtime defeat at then-No. 18 Purdue the blemish. Already one of Division I's best rebounding teams, the Spartans have emerged as one of the premier outside shooting ones during their dominant stretch.
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Led by the ultra-efficient duo of Denzel Valentine and Bryn Forbes, Michigan State has averaged 12.9 3-pointers and shot 52.9 percent from beyond the arc over its last seven games. The Spartans were 14 of 22 in Tuesday's 81-62 win at Ohio State, eclipsing 80 points for the fifth time in six contests.
''We're all very confident, all the work we've put in at this point is paying off,'' Forbes said.
Forbes has connected at a 56.7 percent rate from 3 over the last eight and went 6 of 8 in recording 20 of his 27 points in the second half against the Buckeyes, helping the Spartans pull away after leading by just two late in the first.
Forbes finished 6 of 8 on 3s during a 20-point effort in a 92-65 rout at Penn State (15-13, 6-9) on Jan. 10, just prior to the midseason lull that's compromised the Spartans' chances of winning the Big Ten. They're still squarely in contention for a top four finish that would yield an advantageous double-bye for the conference tournament.
The Nittany Lions have come a long way since that matchup, notching a pair of Top 25 victories over Indiana and Iowa earlier this month. They followed a 79-75 result over the then-No. 4 Hawkeyes with consecutive wins over Rutgers and Nebraska.
Defense has keyed the surge, as they held both Rutgers and Nebraska under 60 points after limiting Iowa to its second-lowest field goal percentage in Big Ten play at 41.2 percent.
Though the conference's lowest scoring and worst-shooting team, Penn State has made strides in those areas as well. It hit a season-high 11 3s in Thursday's 56-55 win over Nebraska and is shooting 40.0 percent from beyond the arc during the streak.
“Guys are shooting with great confidence,” coach Patrick Chambers said. “We're working every day on shooting and those guys are getting in extra, shooting on their own, and that's why you earn the right to make shots. That's why shots are falling for us at home. So it's really great to see.”
Shep Garner is 14 of 26 from 3-point range while averaging 20.0 points during the run, highlighted by Thursday's 22-point effort. Brandon Taylor added 19 points and 10 rebounds and is averaging 18.7 points and 9.1 rebounds over a seven-game span.
The Nittany Lions have shot just 25.7 percent from 3 and 37.9 percent overall in Big Ten road games, though, and Michigan State leads the conference in scoring defense (63.5 points per game) and field goal percentage defense (37.2).
Penn State is 1-18 all-time in East Lansing and has lost five straight there. The Spartans have won six straight in the series since a 61-48 loss in the 2011 Big Ten Tournament semifinals.