(AP)Michigan State wasn't exactly an afterthought when the preseason Associated Press top-25 poll came out back in the fall, but with Big Ten Conference rivals Indiana, Michigan and Ohio State all ranked in the top five and the Spartans looking up from No. 14, it sort of seemed that way.
Things have changed dramatically in the past 31/2 months. By clobbering Michigan 75-52 Tuesday night, the Spartans captured first-place in the best conference in the nation this season, leading Indiana by a half game. With less than a full month remaining in the regular season and most teams down to their final six or seven games, the Spartans are not only a legitimate threat to win the Big Ten but also could earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
But they still have plenty of work to do and it's not going to be easy. Michigan State plays Indiana, at Ohio State, at Michigan and Wisconsin between between Feb. 19 and March 7. That stretch will have a major impact on who wins the regular season title. Of course the regular season title won't mean a thing if the team that wins it doesn't also make a deep run in the conference and NCAA tournaments and it appears there are at least four Big Ten teams capable of doing so now.
The Spartans are not only at the top of the standings, they might be the best overall team because of the way they defend combined with their ability to score inside and out. This isn't the first time a team coached by Tom Izzo has been undervalued to start the season only to make doubters look foolish in February and March.
Michigan State 21-4, 10-2 seemed to win every key matchup against the Wolverines who appeared completely unprepared for the intensity the Spartans played with, particularly on the defensive end. And this is a Michigan team that has played in some difficult environments with a target on its back all season handling that pressure well until the trip to East Lansing.
The Keith Appling-Trey Burke battle was a focal point, but Appling was superior in every way. Burke was in foul trouble that probably disrupted his rhythm and none of his teammates seemed up to the task of filling his shoes. Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III combined to make two of 15 field goal attempts and finished with just four points combined.
Michigan 21-4, 8-4 lost for the third time in 11 days after starting the season 21-1. All four of Michigan's losses have come on the road and it will get opportunities to redeem itself at home against the Spartans. But it didn't seem like it would have mattered what court they were playing on Tuesday. Michigan State was just better.
Follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleRingo