Michigan State beat Wichita State 77-72 to take third place at the Battle for Atlantis Tournament in Nassau, Bahamas Friday. It was the most important win for the Spartans since last season's Big Ten Championship game, not for what they gained, but what they avoided losing.
Allowing the Shockers to come back from 14 points down to win would have been crushing, especially after something similar happened in the season-opener against Arizona. The Spartans jumped out to a 19-4 lead in that one before the Wildcats surged back to win on a last second runner.
And it nearly happened again. Michigan State held a 66-51 advantage with just over eight minutes to play, but Wichita State methodically came back to within one point, 66-65, thanks to a 14-0 run.
The two teams traded buckets over the final minutes until MSU's Cassius Winston hit one of two free throws with 23 seconds to play to extend the Spartans' lead to three, 75-72. The Shockers couldn't get a good look and MSU escaped with the win.
Tom Izzo's squad might look back at this game as the turning point of the season. They were 3-3 coming into Friday, with losses to Arizona, Kentucky, and Baylor, and wins over Mississippi Valley State, Florida Gulf Coast, and St. John's. Sure, the schedule was tough, but Izzo's team hadn't fallen below .500 this deep into the season since the 2003-04 season.
Plus, next on the schedule is a trip to face Duke, so a 3-4 record at this point would have meant disaster.
“I actually apologized to my team,” Izzo said to reporters after the Baylor loss. “I’ve always played a tough schedule. You know what, to all of you, you can take it as an excuse, you can take it as whatever you want, I don’t give a damn. I’m telling you what I did. This ain’t on them, it’s on me. The travel has been brutal.”
Sure, the schedule has been tough. But this team hasn't looked the same as MSU teams in years past. They ranked No. 1 in the country in total rebound percentage last season, grabbing 58% of all possible boards. So far this year? No. 116, not counting the Wichita State game, where they grabbed 36 boards to WSU's 35.
Yes, the schedule has been tough. But Michigan State needed this one, no ifs ands or buts. And they got it.