Michigan State has survived tough times on and off the court this season but has persevered to play for a share of the Big Ten title on Sunday.
The No. 16 Spartans (21-9, 13-6 Big Ten) host No. 19 Ohio State (21-9, 11-8) at Breslin Center in East Lansing, Mich., to close the season.
Ohio State defeated No. 23 Illinois 71-63 on Thursday for its fourth straight win and ninth in 11 games.
Wisconsin is 14-6 in conference play, closing with eight straight wins, and has locked up at least a co-championship. The Spartans and Badgers split their two games on the season.
“For what we have been through, it’s just hard to explain what it means to have the chance to play for a Big Ten championship after the way the last five months have gone,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said following the Spartans’ rally from a 19-point deficit to win 79-71 at No. 20 Penn State on Tuesday.
Michigan State was tabbed the preseason No. 1 nationally, but at one point, the Spartans fell out of the Top 25 in part because Joshua Langford, considered the second-best player on the team behind senior Cassius Winston, has been unavailable all season because of a foot injury.
Then the program was rocked in November when Winston’s younger brother, Zachary, committed suicide.
Izzo told CBS Sports this week the tragedy has been on everyone’s minds.
“Some days (Winston) is just not with it,” he said. “His mother, it’s been hard on her. It’s been like nothing I’ve ever gone through. If we can continue to win here, it will be the best accomplishment of my career, no matter where we go.”
The Buckeyes have been challenged by adversity, although not to that level. Freshman D.J. Carton was starting to show why he was a four-star recruit before he took a leave of absence Jan. 30 to address mental health issues. He has not rejoined the team.
Guard Musa Jallow has missed the entire season after undergoing two ankle surgeries, and starting forward Kyle Young has been out the past three games due to an ankle sprain.
Yet, the Buckeyes have persevered. Against Michigan last Sunday, they went a on 23-9 run for a 77-63 victory. They outscored Illinois 23-6 in the final 9:48.
“We have been a very tough-minded group these last five weeks,” Ohio State coach Chris Holtmann said. “We’ll see if that continues. There’s no permanency to that. You have to bring that each day to practice. That’s a muscle you grow.”
Freshman E.J. Liddell, a two-time Illinois Mr. Basketball, had a breakout game, tying his career high with 17 points and setting it with 11 rebounds vs. the Illini in Young’s absence.
“I felt like the game has slowed down a lot,” he said.
Said Holtmann, “His offense and defense were critical. He was phenomenal. Now we’ve got to see if he can keep doing that.”
— Field Level Media