Michigan State's coach Tom Izzo gives direction from the sidelines during last season's NCAA tournament. Photo by Bill Greenblatt/UPI | License Photo
Tom Izzo doesn't run away from the No. 1 ranking. He's eager to see how his Michigan State Spartans handle the pressure of being atop the polls.
Michigan State, which has won 13 straight by double digits, was elevated to the top spot after last week's No. 1 team, Villanova, lost to Butler. The Spartans play for the first time since the new rankings were released when they host Maryland on Thursday in East Lansing, Mich.
"It's a plus for our players to feel like what they've done so far gets rewarded a little bit," Izzo said. "How they handle it will speak volumes to what our near future's like."
The Spartans (14-1 overall, 2-0 Big Ten) scored over 100 points in their last four victories over nonconference opponents. Their defense has been just as fearsome, as they lead the nation in field-goal percentage defense at 32.8.
"When you play good defense and you shoot well, that means you're playing both ends of the court," Izzo said. "We earned the right to feel good about that but let's not lose perspective. Some of those teams had an injured player, some of them we were just better. What I've liked about this team, including Duke, it's been pretty consistent."
Since falling to the Blue Devils the second game of the season, the Spartans have endured very few anxious moments. Rutgers gave them a tough challenge in their last Big Ten game on Dec. 5 before they secured a 62-52 win.
The Spartans went through some growing pains with a freshmen-laden lineup last season, when they finished tied for fifth in the conference standings at 10-8. Expectations have risen dramatically and so have Izzo's standards for his current roster.
"Last year, mistakes weren't always dealt with because we were just trying to survive," Izzo said. "This year, you don't get to make those same mistakes and try to win the Big Ten."
Maryland (13-3, 2-1) has won seven straight despite losing two key players to season-ending injuries. Sophomore forward Justin Jackson, a projected NBA first-round draft pick, suffered a torn labrum in his right shoulder, and junior forward Ivan Bender has a torn meniscus in his right knee.
The Terrapins will be playing the Spartans on short rest after a 75-69 home win over Penn State on Tuesday.
"They're a heck of a team," coach Mark Turgeon said of Michigan State. "So we've got to be ready. They're playing at a high level right now and we've got to figure out a way to keep the game at a pace that we're comfortable with."
A methodical pace helped the Terrapins on Tuesday, as they committed just five turnovers. They also did a superior job drawing fouls, shooting 34 free throws while the Nittany Lions attempted just four.
"Five turnovers was nice," Turgeon said. "We played slower, and Anthony (Cowan) had a lot to do with that. And we tried to dictate the pace a little bit with our offense, we're still trying to figure that out. But no, I was really happy with that."
Cowan, a sophomore guard, played the entire game and posted 18 points. He's averaging 15.6 points, 5.0 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.5 steals.