EAST LANSING — Tom Izzo sits at 599 wins after claiming a share of his ninth Big Ten regular-season title.
He hopes to be at 602 going into the NCAA tournament if No. 6 Michigan State can capture the 24th-year coach's record sixth Big Ten tournament title this weekend.
That would take three wins in three days with an injury-hampered team.
The Spartans (25-6), the No. 1 seed, open up in the quarterfinals against No. 8 seed Ohio State on Friday at United Center in Chicago. With the chance for a milestone victory, Izzo also can extend his Big Ten tournament record to six titles, a week after winning a share of the regular-season championship by beating rival Michigan.
"I don't like to be different in a lot of things, I'd rather be the same and not stand out and wear a bow tie to be different or a white suit to be different. I don't want to bring attention that way," Izzo said Monday. "This is one area where I think we can be different. I'd like to say, 'Can we be a team that can win it, have an emotional last night (of the regular season) and get back on the horse and on to another race?'"
Here are three things to watch when MSU and Ohio State tip off at 12:30 p.m.
The anticipated return of junior forward Nick Ward from a broken hand adds depth to the Spartans' thin frontcourt, where Kenny Goins (35.6) and Xavier Tillman (31.6) have shouldered the minutes load in Ward's absence. Freshman Thomas Kithier also has averaged 11.8 minutes over the past five games.
Ward suffered a hairline fracture in his left (shooting) hand late in the first half against Ohio State on Feb. 17. The third-team All-Big Ten selection is averaging 15.1 points and 6.7 rebounds this season. Izzo was not sure midway through the week how much, or in what capacity, he would use Ward as he makes his way back.
Kyle Ahrens' bad back continues to be an issue, though he gutted out 15 minutes and contributed two key baskets in MSU's 75-63 win over U-M on Sunday. That, along with 31 minutes from Aaron Henry, meant no time for freshman wing Gabe Brown. However, Brown likely will be needed over the duration of the weekend tournament.
Likewise, Foster Loyer got seven minutes Sunday and helped direct the Spartans' 6-0 run to close the first half with Big Ten Player of the Year Cassius Winston on the bench in foul trouble. Loyer also played 11 minutes against Nebraska, Winston is battling tendinitis in his knees.
"I think we're gonna need a few more people if we plan on going any distance in that thing," Izzo said.
MSU enters the conference tournament ranked No. 8 in NET (NCAA Evaluation Tool) rankings, which the selection committee is using this year for the first time as the primary measure for evaluating teams for seeding the brackets that will be released Sunday evening.
A year ago, the NCAA adopted a quadrant metric to "place greater emphasis on success in games played away from home." The Spartans are tied with Virginia for the most Quadrant 1 victories this season with 11. Kentucky and Kansas are the only other Division I schools with 10.
ESPN bracket analyst Joe Lunardi said Wednesday he has MSU as his No. 5 team right now -- which would make the Spartans the highest No. 2 seed -- but he could see a No. 1 seed coming if Izzo and Co. wins in Chicago.
"I can't wait to see if the never-ending change and the people that are making these selections -- and you're talking to a guy who doesn't care," Izzo said. "I care more about where we go than what we're seeded. But we are playing for a championship."
Ohio State advances
Ohio State nearly blew a 20-point lead in the final 7:30 against No. 9 seed Indiana on Thursday, but they hung on for a 79-75 victory to keep its hope for an NCAA berth alive.
The Spartans swept the Buckeyes this season, winning 86-77 in Columbus on Jan. 5, and 62-44 on Feb. 17 in East Lansing. The Buckeyes were 12-1 going into that January game; they're 7-12 after.
Buckeyes coach Chris Holtmann says his team faces a tough challenge.
"They're an elite team, can get to a Final Four, can win a national championship. They're deserving of everything that's come their way," Chris Holtmann said Thursday of MSU. "We'll need to play exceptional basketball for 40 minutes, but we're excited about the opportunity."
Kaleb Wesson returned Thursday from a three-game suspension -- all Ohio State losses -- and finished with 17 points and 13 rebounds against Indiana. The 6-foot-9 sophomore forward had 25 points and eight rebounds in the January meeting, then scored 12 points with nine rebounds against MSU in February.
Wesson leads the Buckeyes at 14.7 points and 6.9 rebounds a game. Guard C.J. Jackson, who had 17 points and made two key free throws with 3.3 seconds left vs. the Hoosiers, averages 12.3 points.
Ward's return helps provide an emotional boost and an extra big body to bang around with Wesson, and Winston plays more like he did in the first game (25 points) than the second (13), in which he struggled with his shot.
Pick: MSU 78, Ohio State 69.
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