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Michigan State hopes it's not too late to cram for late-game lessons

INDIANAPOLIS -- Seton Hall just opened the door for Michigan State to claim a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi predicts the Spartans have it wrapped up, thanks to the Pirates' 69-67 upset of Villanova on Saturday in the Big East title game.

Michigan State coach Tom Izzo has another thought altogether. As he prepares his team to face Purdue in the Big Ten tournament championship, seeding isn't the goal he has in mind.

"That's not as motivating to me as winning this championship, if you want the truth," Izzo said. "That's out of our hands. … If that's an end product of winning, I'd be thrilled. I'm more concerned with winning a championship because I think you have to learn how to do that, and that would help us move on to the next one."

It's not just about winning, either. It's about how the Spartans win. They are admittedly still learning how to handle close games. Before the 64-61 win over Maryland, they had won seven straight games by an average of 22 points. Only two of Michigan State's regular-season conference victories were by single digits.

But the losses? The Spartans know close losses. The Boilermakers handed them an 82-81 overtime setback in the teams' only meeting this season. That's why the Spartans' win over Maryland in a one-possession game was big, even if senior center Matt Costello didn't like it.

"We don't want any nail-biters. We want to keep winning how we've been winning," Costello said. "But to have [a close game], that's just going to make us stronger because we're not going to just have blowouts the rest of the year."

They definitely will not in the latter stages of the NCAA tournament, when one-possession games become the norm, and they probably won't on Sunday against Purdue, either.

The Boilermakers should be a good practice run for a team that hasn't had much success winning close games. Four of the Spartans' six losses have come in one-point games or overtime.

Izzo said he hoped the win over Maryland could be a springboard.

"We have not been in a lot of close games. This was a dogfight against a talented team, and I thought, in general, we did enough to win," he said. "You have to learn how to win, too."

However, Izzo didn't think the Spartans handled the closing minutes well, and he called their play "sloppy" at times.

While nursing a three-point lead, Denzel Valentine, Eron Harris and Costello each committed a turnover in the last 2:30 of the game. Luckily for the Spartans, their defense came through with two stops after those three possessions, and they maintained a lead.

"We haven't been in many close games, and we didn't handle it very well," Izzo said. "That falls on the head coach. We've just got to figure out a way to simulate that [late-game situation] a little better."

For all Valentine did right in scoring 18 points with 10 assists and seven rebounds against the Terps, he got the final play wrong. He was supposed to miss his free throw with 0.2 seconds left so Maryland could not attempt a long pass from out of bounds. But Valentine made it.

When the Terps inbounded the ball, Eron Harris wasn't supposed to be anywhere near a Maryland player trying to hoist the ball. But Harris mirrored Melo Trimble and was close enough to him that a foul could have been called when Trimble threw a desperation shot up.

"We haven't had a game like that in a while. It just shows us how important it is to focus down the stretch and defend down the stretch," senior guard Bryn Forbes said. "It's all just decision-making, pretty much. Small, mental errors will catch up."

For once, those errors didn't cost the Spartans a victory. But the game provided an example to draw from when, inevitably, they are in a close game in the NCAA tournament.

"Remember: This is the Big Ten tournament. There's still another tournament to play," Izzo said. "We've got to be learning each and every day what we did right and wrong, and we'll address it."