Though No. 4 Michigan State has seemed a bit sluggish at times as of late due to a number of nagging team injuries, that didn't stop the Spartans from delivering the Fighting Illini a deflating fourth loss in a row by a score of 78-62 this weekend in Champaign, Illinois this weekend.
On Sunday, MSU head coach Tom Izzo, who ousted Illinois' Lou Henson and himself moved into the No. 4 spot on the list of all-time Big Ten wins with 215, said that the win, which marked the 10th in a row for the Spartans (17-1, 6-0 Big Ten), as a good sign of things to come.
"We're getting there," he said. "We're gutting things out. We're better defensively than we were a month ago, we're better rebounding than we were a month ago."
Michigan State now has sole possession of the top spot in the Big Ten Conference, and heading into Illinois, no other Spartan team in history had won 16 of their first 17 games in a season. Sophomore guard Denzel Valentine had a game-high 11 rebounds and added 15 points to his effort. The young player also told reporters after the game that he and his teammates knew what was on the line, not just for themselves, but for a chance to get Izzo a chance to move up in the Big Ten win record.
"We kept saying, 'Let's make history,' " Valentine said.
That history came into fruition with Izzo now holding onto the No. 4 spot in conference wins. The coach said he called Henson before the match up to talk with him about usurping his fourth spot in the record books. Izzo though, still says he has yet to speak to Bob Knight, who holds the No. 1 spot with 353 wins, but that when he does, it won't be to tell the former coach to watch his back.
"It's nice," Izzo said. "I'm going to call Bob and make sure he realizes there's no worries. Nobody's catching him."
Still, it doesn't seem quite normal for the Spartans to be continuing to rack up wins without star player Adreian Payne, who missed his third-consecutive game with an ankle injury. Gary Harris, who had a game-high 23 points, told reporters that the team is learning to adapt without Payne, though they hope to have him back sooner rather than later.
"We learned to play without him," Harris said. "Some other guys stepped up. We're building a deeper team."
You can follow MSU writer, Michael Ferro, at twitter.com/MichaelFerro.