EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) -- In most seasons, the Big Ten tournament seems to be regarded as simply a speed bump for Michigan State coach Tom Izzo.
It comes after the regular season, which Izzo values, and before the NCAA tournament, where he has built his legacy as one of the best coaches in college basketball.This year, though, the conference's showcase is important for Izzo and his struggling team."The tournament is going be big for us," Izzo said Tuesday. "Most years it's not."The 22nd-ranked Spartans open up against Northwestern on Friday night."The tournament will give us an opportunity to get some extra time together on the court to work on our chemistry," senior forward Adreian Payne said. "It also gives us a chance to win a championship before we go to win another one in the NCAA tournament."Third-seeded Michigan State (23-8) was picked to win the Big Ten title and expected to contend for the national championship. It started the season ranked No. 2 and was the nation's top-ranked team for a three-week stretch in late November and early December.A string of setbacks slowed six players or put them on the sideline this season, turning a once-promising season into a disappointing one.Branden Dawson returned March 1 after missing nine games with a broken right hand, giving Izzo all of his players in a game for the first time in nearly two months.That didn't make much of a difference.The Spartans lost at home to Illinois by seven points, bounced back with a double-digit win over Iowa and closed the regular season with a two-point setback at Ohio State -- their seventh loss in 12 games after an 18-1 start.Slowly and surely, injuries and illnesses took a toll and led to 15 different starting lineups.Gary Harris, who was named to the all-Big Ten first-team, missed three games early in the season with a sprained right ankle. Payne was out for seven games with a sprained right foot. Keith Appling had a hip injury midway through the season and sore right wrist led to him missing three games last month. Matt Costello was out for four straight games early in the season because of mononucleosis. Travis Trice missed a game with foot blisters and another game because he was ill.Now Izzo's attention turns to the Big Ten tournament, and the opportunity for the Spartans to play up toward their potential."Every game and every practice we can have benefits this team -- a lot," he said. "It benefits them a lot because we just need to play together."There's enough talent here. There's enough caring here. There's enough positive things here to make a run."Their journey begins against Northwestern (14-18), which became the first 11th seed to win in the Big Ten tournament with Thursday's 67-62 victory over Iowa.Tre Demps had 20 points, including four 3-pointers, and Drew Crawford added 15 points and six assists for the Wildcats, who ended the regular season with seven losses in eight games."We're trying to build, we're trying to climb the mountain of this Big Ten," said first-year coach Chris Collins, who used just seven players against the Hawkeyes. "We have aspirations of, eventually, one day being a program that contends for championships year in and year out, and it takes time and it takes experience. And in order to do that, you have to take steps as they come."And one of those steps is you've got to learn how to win in the postseason tournament. And so for us to come here and prepare and to get a win and now have a chance to be able to play Michigan State, which to me is the standard of excellence in this league."The Spartans won both meetings against Northwestern this season by an average of 14.5 points, and have won 19 of the last 21 matchups. Michigan State is also 3-0 against the Wildcats in the Big Ten tournament.