Must Win Time for MSU

Jan 10, 2013 Adam Ruff | View Comments

There is quite a bit of debate on whether tonight's game is a "must-win" contest for Michigan State.

Personally, I've flip-flopped on that topic all week long (I guess I should run for congress).

So I suppose I shouldn't be surprised that there is some dissenting opinion within the Spartan team - at least on the varying degree of what people consider "must-win".

"Well I hate to say it and it's not coach speak, but I don't know if Iowa's one of those games," said Coach Tom Izzo on Monday. "We didn't win there two years ago and it's not an easy place to play at. But I do think they're much improved."

It's hard to argue Coach Izzo's sentiment, since this year marks his 18th year around the Big Ten block. After all, you only have to look back to a season ago, when MSU weathered a five-game stretch in which they lost three times. They bounced back to follow that up with seven-straight W's, before sharing the Big Ten title with a 13-and-5 record.

On the other hand...

"We're looking at it as a must-win," point guard Travis Trice stated matter of factly following Tuesday's practice. "I mean, right now, we've already got one loss and we don't want to start out 1-and-2. It's definitely a must win, but it's also going to be a tough game too because it's at Iowa and they're playing really well right now."

Look, to win in the Big Ten, you have to sweep at home and win at least 5 of your 9 road games at a mininum (This isn't fact, just my opinion). Right off the bat, that formula puts a team at 14-and-4.

{SIDEBAR}

Since the Big Ten reverted back to its 18-game schedule in the 2007-08 season (5 seasons), only three teams have posted a record better than 14-4. Wisconsin (16-2) and Purdue (15-3) both accomplished that mark in 07-08, while Ohio State finished 16-2 in 10-11. But those seasons were down years for the conference, which provided an easier road to the top for the best teams.

With that in mind, I believe we are on track for a season like 2011-12 or 2009-10, when the Big Ten boasted three-way champions at 13-5 ('10-'11) and 14-4 ('09-'10) respectively. In both of those seasons, eight teams finished with at least seven conference wins.

{END OF SIDEBAR}

What isn't debated, is that the Spartans are in the midst of a crucial four game stretch (Purdue, at Iowa, Nebraska, at Penn State) that are "must-win" contests simply because they "must" take advantage of the weaker teams among the nation's toughest conference.

And when you consider the number of wins a team needs to find on the road, I'd say that doubles the importance of tonight's game.

"You definitely have to find some road games to win," Izzo went on to say. "If you look at anybody's schedule there are certain games. When you have six ranked teams in the league and I think seven have been ranked, that only leaves four or five other teams that aren't ranked and you hope to win some of those road games if you play them."

In this four game stretch, Iowa is the toughest contest of the bunch. At 0-2 in the Big Ten, the Hawkeyes took Indiana to the wire before faltering. They followed that narrow loss with a 28-point defeat at Michigan despite leading for much of the first half.

While Iowa is unranked, they do have a deep squad, with four former starters coming off the bench for Coach Fran McCaffery. That's just one of the main reason's that Izzo doesn't necessarily differentiate on the varying degrees of difficulty within the schedule.

"There's no question that trying to beat teams that aren't ranked is a little better than trying to beat the teams that are in the top five," Izzo pointed out. "For me, I don't look at it that way. I just think right now every game we play, home or away, is not going to be an easy task. I really believe that for us. And part of that is them (an opponent), but part of that is us. We're not playing as well as we need to play."

"Iowa is a beatable team, but at the same time they're gonna have the advantage because they're at home," Spartan co-captain Derrick Nix said. "So we're going to have to play our best. And if we do win, it'll just - like I said - build our team confidence."

Confidence is critical when you consider the gaunlet which lies ahead for Michigan State. Wins over Iowa, Nebraska and Penn State in each of the next three games would put MSU at 4-1 before heading into its next stretch of games against the stiffest competition (Ohio State, at Wisconsin, at Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota).

So the time is now, for MSU to take advantage of it's early season conference schedule.

"If we go down there and beat them, you know, we feel good about ourselves and it puts us in a better place," Derrick Nix said of his team's trip to Iowa. "But if we lose, it could be deadly."

Maybe not quite deadly.

I'll let you decide.