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Mental Toughness, Never Quit Mindset Led to Big Ten Title for Michigan State

It wasn’t always pretty, but the Spartans fought their way to the program’s first Big Ten title in six years.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Anytime you’re able to hang a banner, you’ve achieved something special — that’s what Michigan State accomplished on Tuesday. And when you look at how the Spartans were able to win at least a share of the Big Ten regular season championship you’ll see how much more impressive of an accomplishment this really was.

Michigan State used a big second half to top Illinois, 81-61, on Tuesday night to clinch a share of the Big Ten regular season championship. The win improved the Spartans to 15-2 in Big Ten play and 27-3 overall, which ranks currently as the best regular season record in Michigan State basketball history. The game itself wasn’t very pretty — the Spartans only led by three points at halftime — but in a lot of ways represented what conference play has been for Michigan State.

After a double-digit home loss to rival Michigan on Jan. 13, it looked like the Spartans were heading towards a disappointing season. The loss was Michigan State’s second in a three-game span and dropped the Spartans to 4-2 in league play. It was panic mode for many fans, as it appeared the heavy preseason favorites weren’t going to live up to the hype. However, that loss to the Wolverines was a wake-up call and the Spartans haven’t lost since.

Michigan State has reeled off 11 straight victories to get to this point — they also received some help with some upset losses by the other Big Ten contenders. Their backs were against the wall, yet they were able to do what they needed to do, and proved they have what it takes to be a championship caliber team.

Winning 11 games in a row is hard to do, and the Spartans made it even harder on themselves in a lot of those games. The Spartans won six of those matchups by single-digits, with three of them being one-possession games. Even more impressive was the Spartans ability to rally in a few different games. Michigan State trailed by eight or more points in the second half of five games during this winning streak. Five times Michigan State’s Big Ten championship hopes were on life support, and five times they surged back to steal the victory.

Now, you can look at these second half comebacks and say the Spartans should have never put themselves in those situations. I would agree with that — being down by 27 points to Northwestern isn’t exactly a quality of a championship level team. But having the mental toughness to overcome poor stretches led to the Spartans’ first Big Ten championship since 2012. That same mental toughness could also help lead Michigan State to a few more championships as March nears.

So what’s next for the Spartans? Well, hopefully a lot if you’re sporting the green-and-white. Tuesday was fun for Spartans everywhere, but there’s still plenty left on the table for Michigan State to achieve. The next thing on that list will be locking up the program’s first outright Big Ten championship since 2009 when they travel to Wisconsin on Sunday.

After that, Michigan State will turn its focus to the Big Ten Tournament being held at Madison Square Garden in the Big Apple. If the Spartans were able to win three more games and cut down the nets in New York, they’d surely be in great position to earn the Spartans’ first No. 1 seed since 2012. If they don’t they’ll still most likely find themselves on the two or three seed line.

And of course after the Big Ten Tournament comes the NCAA Tournament where the Spartans will be one of the popular picks to cut down the nets in San Antonio. They’re currently listed with the second best odds to win it all at 5-1 so reaching Tom Izzo’s eighth Final Four will be expected from fans.

So when you look at what’s still ahead, you might think Tuesday night wasn’t a big deal. And maybe in the grand scheme of things it won’t be if the Spartans go on to experience success in New York and the NCAA Tournament. Izzo hinted at that last night, saying he won’t be satisfied with hoisting only one banner this year. But he also acknowledged how special of a night it was on Tuesday.

“I’m really proud of this team,” Izzo told reporters following the Tuesday’s win over Illinois. “I’m proud of what they’ve done. Normally it’s hard at the end of the year with a game left to celebrate anything, but with the fact that it’s senior night, to win a championship at home, at least to tie for one, is a special moment.”

When you look at how Michigan State got to this point, it makes that much more special.