Here we go again. Since Indiana and Michigan State last met on January 27 (a 75-70 IU win), the Spartans have asserted their dominance with big wins over Minnesota and Michigan, while the Hoosiers balanced a stumble against Illinois with victories over UM and Ohio State. Now the two sides are tied atop the conference standings, which makes tonight's game in East Lansing (7:00 ET, ESPN) a major factor in determining the Big Ten regular season title.
Back in Bloomington during these teams' first meeting of the season, Victor Oladipo tore up Michigan State with 21 points on 8-for-12 shooting, plus 6 steals, 3 blocks, and 7 rebounds. Now with the home crowd behind them, the Spartans must be more protective of the ball in order to keep Indiana from scoring in transition.
With the speed and athleticism of Oladipo along with Yogi Ferrell and Cody Zeller, the Hoosiers are built for the fast break, but Michigan State can slow them down in the half court. That was also evident in the teams' previous meeting, when the Spartans held Zeller to just 9 points on 2-for-7 shooting.
On offense, Tom Izzo's squad should try to overwhelm Indiana's frontcourt with its front line of Adreian Payne, Derrick Nix, and Branden Dawson. Against the Hoosiers the first time, those three combined to shoot 61% from the field for 38 points. However, the real star of that game (besides Oladipo) was Gary Harris who hit the bottom of the net on 5-of-10 three-pointers en route to 21 points.
Harris should once again be able to take advantage of a Hoosier defense that will be focused on the interior, but even if he's not quite as hot as last time, Keith Appling with almost certainly put up a better showing. In the first game, Appling fouled out in 19 minutes and had more turnovers (four) than points (three). Appling isn't quite the long-range sniper that Harris is, but he will be effective if Tom Crean chooses to guard him with Jordan Hulls.
If Michigan State does prevail tonight, it will establish itself as the top team in the conference, and that might be the case for quite a long time. Izzo seems to have recruited players who are perfectly capable of winning Big Ten basketball games, but who aren't attractive enough to pro scouts to think about leaving school early. Derrick Nix is the only senior on the current roster, and a look at NBA mock drafts doesn't turn up any Spartans on the board.
In fact, DraftExpress.com has Adreian Payne as the highest rated Michigan State prospect, but he's currently number 64 in their top 100. The big man would probably be better off with another year to work on his face-up game. Based on draft projections, it seems like the Spartans have a great chance at returning four of five starters next season. Meanwhile, Indiana will most likely be losing Zeller and Oladipo to the NBA draft.
Michigan State's other rivals will also be facing heavy attrition. John Beilein's Wolverines could be losing their top three scorers, while Wisconsin's Jared Berggren and Ryan Evans are on schedule to graduate after this season. While the present version of the Big Ten is still up for grabs, Michigan State is in a unique position because they're already all set up for a 2014 run. For everyone else, tonight could be the last chance in a while to knock the Spartans into second place.