Gut-check week for Spartans

BY foxsports • January 18, 2011

FOX Sports Detroit
Jan. 18, 2010

Preseason favorites to win the Big Ten men's basketball title, Michigan State faces a potential make-or-break week.

Not for the season, because there's always March.

But the Spartans are going to be in a significant early hole in the Big Ten race if they can't break through on the road either Tuesday against No. 23 Illinois (13-5, 3-2) or Saturday against No. 14 Purdue (15-3, 4-1).

"It's a huge week for us," MSU coach Tom Izzo said Monday during his weekly news conference. "Illinois and Purdue are two of the toughest places to play in the league. They're two of the best teams in the league and have some of the best players. That's going to be a big challenge for us."

Getting upset at Penn State earlier this month doesn't give the Spartans (12-5, 4-1) much room for error, not with undefeated and top-ranked Ohio State (18-0, 5-0) setting the pace.

Michigan State plays Ohio State only once, and that's in Columbus (Feb. 15).

"What puts a little more pressure on us is the loss at Penn State," Izzo said. "You've got to try to steal a game on the road now to try to make up for it."

Michigan State needed overtime to beat Wisconsin and Northwestern at home last week. Those two victories moved the Spartans back into the Associated Press poll at No. 17 after they were not ranked a week ago.

Not exactly what was expected out of the nation's No. 2 team in the preseason.

Nevertheless, Izzo said he sees improvement from his team in several key areas, including defense, turnovers, free throws and rebounding.

"We're just not shooting the ball very well," he said. "When the ball doesn't go in the basket, you never look good."

Izzo always puts his players through a grueling nonconference schedule to help prepare them for weeks like this one.

He calls Illinois' home-court advantage "one of the best in the whole nation."

And he says Purdue's fans will be "bonkers" for a prime-time, nationally televised game.

"Is this where your schedule helps you because you've been through this?" Izzo said. "How we handle that (the hostile environments) is going to speak a lot about where this team's at right now, either where we've got to get to or where we're already getting to."