Spartans scoring more than ever under coach Tom Izzo
FILE - In this Feb. 18, 2016, file photo, Michigan State coach Tom Izzo talks with Denzel Valentine during the second half of the team's NCAA college basketball game against Wisconsin, in East Lansing, Mich. Michigan State is scoring more than it ever has under Tom Izzo. The Spartans are averaging an Izzo-high 79.4 points a game with Denzel Valentine directing an offense with options inside and out. (AP Photo/Al Goldis, File)
EAST LANSING, Mich. (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.
Article continues below ...
Michigan State (22-5, 9-5 Big Ten) is a 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.''
Follow Larry Lage at http://www.twitter.com/larrylage and follow his work at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/larry-lage