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 (23-8) will face the winner of the Iowa-Northwestern game 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."
Michigan State 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 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.
While success in the Big Ten tournament could improve the Spartans' seeding in the tournament that really matters, Izzo insisted he isn't worried about whether his team is seeded third, fourth, fifth or sixth.
"I'd play anybody," he said. "Really, anybody in the whole tournament."
Izzo said No. 1 Florida is "really, really good," but he doesn't believe any team in college basketball is as talented as past champions such as North Carolina in 2009.
That's part of the reason Izzo is fired up for the Big Ten tournament and the opportunity it gives 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."
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