Written by: chrismackinder Sunday, January 27, 2013 | 12:00 pm • No Comments •
It seemed laughable when I played up Michigan State being in second place in the Big Ten last week. Well, after a two-win week that included a 59-56 win against Ohio State and a 49-47 win at Wisconsin the Spartans now have sole possession of first place in the best conference in the land.
Naturally, the Big Ten standings are fluid. The Spartans (17-3, 6-1 Big Ten) could easily be in third place (and that’s the likely projection) when Monday rolls around behind Indiana (17-2, 5-1) and Michigan (18-1, 5-1). Or, the Spartans could still hold a half-game lead by winning in the toughest Big Ten venue.
Without further ado, here’s a big breakdown of Sunday’s showdown in Bloomington (h/t to Kenpom):
We’ll revisit this fact, but I’ll lead with it as I don’t like to hold back punches: This year’s Indiana team is better than last year’s Indiana team; This year’s Michigan State team is slightly worse than last year’s Michigan State team. The Spartans were 2.5-point favorites. Last year’s final score in Bloomington: 70-55 Hoosiers.
Usually, I wouldn’t bring up a “meaningless” game that featured two completely different rosters as part of my breakdown of another game. The reason I do is simple: Assembly Hall is a very tough place to play. Indiana tends to get the Duke-style home-court whistles, the crowd is bonkers (in a good way) from tip to final buzzer, and the setup just tends to have some unmeasurable affect (in a bad way) on opponent shooters. For a team like Michigan State this is a undoubtedly a toxic combination.
Tom Izzo’s Spartans don’t play great on the road. Yes, the Spartans win their fair share of road games (currently the Spartans and Hoosiers are the only Big Ten teams with three conference road victories) but history hasn’t been that kind to MSU. Factoring in possible luck makes it easy to see how MSU’s 3-0 road record could easily be 1-2 (see a 3-point how-the-heck-did-they-pull-that-out win at Iowa and Tuesday’s first-one-to-49-wins victory at Wisconsin).
Just examine last year’s road results (against the spread, of course):
* -7 at Nebraska (W 68-55) * +6.5 at Wisconsin (W 63-60) * -5 at Northwestern (L 81-74) * -1 at Michigan (L 60-59) *-1.5 at Illinois (L 42-41) * +8.5 at Ohio State (W 58-48) * -4.5 at Purdue (W 76-62) * -5.5 at Minnesota (W 66-61) * -2.5 at Indiana (L 70-55)
First off, a few things happened last year – a Cinderella MSU season if there ever was one – that are atypical: The Spartans won at Wisconsin and at Ohio State. (MSU also didn’t play in Iowa’s Carver-Hawkeye Arena, a house of horrors for the basketball team). You can see how the Spartans tend to play down to their competition on the road. Or, even worse, when the opponent is highly ranked the Spartans have an embarrassing tendency to get blown out. (It wasn’t long ago trips to Wisconsin’s Kohl Center resulted in 82-56 losses you know).
Now, let’s focus on the actual game at hand (but don’t erase MSU’s road tendencies from your memory). Indiana is better in, well, every category. The Hoosiers shoot better, rebound their own misses better, get the foul line better and take care of the ball better. Athletically, the Hoosiers also have the edge, although some might argue it just appears that way because Tom Crean is more apt to push the pace while Izzo, despite enjoying an up-and-down game, is comfortable playing a slug-it-out half-court game.
Covering the Spartans for a few years while I was at The State News I marveled the way Michigan State was able to get such easy scoring opportunities out of timeouts and after inbound plays. (Confession alert: While coaching the Algonac freshmen girls basketball team a few years ago – we went 0-15 but I promise I was a little handcuffed talent wise – I deviated from the plays I was supposed to run and used a play from the Spartans play book. It was an under-the-hoop inbound play. It was the only under-the-hoop inbound play we scored on all season). Even nowadays you’ll hear announcers gush about the success MSU has after timeouts or out of bounds sets. Unless I’m missing something this is a narrative that is running dry. The Spartans are okay in these situations but they’re in no way “one of the better teams in the country” as commentators would like you to believe. Indiana, on the other hand, might be. Crean, one of Izzo’s disciples, is masterful at getting quick scores when he needs them, especially on an inbound play. He’s the best I’ve seen in the country for the past four years. If I was fortunate to see more of his games at Marquette his kingship in the category might go further back. My point is simple: Even when an opponent thinks it’s stopped Indiana (deflecting a pass or blocking an initial shot out of bounds as a pair of examples) the Hoosiers have the defense right where they want them.
There are two advantages Michigan State might have in this game based solely on Big Ten play thus far: The Hoosiers are turning the ball over on 20.7 percent of conference possessions and the Spartans are forcing steals on 12.8 percent of opponent possessions, best in the conference. Those two stats are what should give Spartan Nation some hope. Other than that, however, this game is slanted heavily in Indiana’s favor.
The Spartans, while playing better as of late, have the tendency of packing the lane so not to allow easy buckets. The result is more opponent 3-point attempts. Luckily for MSU the opposition has struggled a bit in Big Ten play. Indiana is shooting 42.2 percent in conference play (the exact same percentage for the entire season). Those 3-point trips will be killer, especially since the Spartans aren’t exactly capable of making a big comeback by using the triple as a main weapon. Izzo’s main offensive sets run from the inside and a 3-point shot is usually option three or four in any given set. While MSU is shooting 38.4 percent from deep in Big Ten play that could be a mirage given MSU’s 33.8 percentage over the entire season. Coupled with the fact Indiana’s 3-point defense (28.8 percent in Big Ten play, 30.1 percent overall) is stellar means the 3-point line will be crucial for both sides.
The other “edge” the Spartans might have is in the paint. Now, don’t mistake that for saying Derrick Nix or Adreian Payne is better than Cody Zeller. That’s not the case at all. What I am saying is that the combination of Nix and Payne, coined Derrick Payne by some MSU bloggers, could give the Spartans an advantage. Zeller isn’t going to play 40 minutes but it is almost a guarantee, barring foul trouble, that one of Nix or Payne is on the floor for the entire game.
I would expect Izzo to game plan for this game the same way he did for Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger last year. Knowing OSU’s bench was very thin Izzo rotated Nix and Payne frequently to keep both fresh. He also pushed the pace for 40 minutes and challenged both players to beat Sullinger down the floor on offense each possession. That singlehandedly won the Spartans the game in Columbus. Indiana’s depth is a little better, but no Zeller leaves a big hole. Because he’s not likely to be sent to the bench with foul trouble, the Spartans better hope to run him to death and wear him out.
Indiana’s defense is night and day from last year. I still disagree with Mr. Pomeroy that Indiana’s defensive efficiency would make it the 12th best unit in the country. Nevertheless, this unit is exponentially better than last year’s which ranked 64th nationally in Pomeroy’s rankings. This unit communicates much better and also forces more turnovers which helps. There are still spurts, however, where Indiana looks lost defensively (see giving up 88 points, albeit in overtime, to slow-paced Butler and the 81 points surrendered to Minnesota in a game that saw the Gophers score 52 second-half points). The point is, like many great teams, Indiana has great moments fueled by offensive execution and defensive suffocation. It also has those deer-in-the-headlight moments on defense that somehow lead to poor offense and allow the Hoosiers to get beat.
In terms of playing meaningful minutes, Indiana’s rotation is really seven guys. Jeremy Hollowell, who plays around 7-10 minutes a game, would be No. 8. That means foul trouble and fatigue are Indiana’s biggest opponents. Zeller plays around 33 minutes a game but went as high as 35 in the loss to Wisconsin (he played 37 in the OT loss to Butler). Most other IU starters are around 30 which allows Will Sheehey to get his 15-18 useful minutes off the bench for multiple players. Remy Abell is the other key bench guy, charting around 12-15 minutes a game in Big Ten play. Any team, including the Spartans, has a much better chance to win if Sheehey and Abell are on the floor for more minutes because it means one (or two) of Zeller, Ferrell, Oladipo, Watford or Hulls is saddled with foul trouble.
The wild card is MSU’s Branden Dawson. If you caught any of MSU’s win at Wisconsin you understand why. Dawson went for 18 points and 13 rebounds in a 49-47 win (55 possessions). In a “normal” game that doesn’t appear to be played in the 1950s that looks closer to 25 and 18. That is the Dawson who looks like an All-American and who can take over a game on both ends of the floor if needed. If that Dawson shows up it’ll be a huge boost for the Spartans. The problem is Dawson combined for 14 points and 15 rebounds in his previous two games before that.
The pick: Go back to that Michigan State road stat I gave you earlier. The Spartans might be road warriors in terms of effort but they’re not the road warriors that go 7-2 on the road in Big Ten play every year. MSU is due for a clunker and this is the perfect time to get one that most will chalk up as playing a better team. The Spartans lost by eight at Miami and by 13 at Minnesota. Indiana is better than both teams (by a fairly wide margin if I do say so myself). This has the look of a game that might start out even but expect a few major Indiana runs that MSU’s stagnant offense won’t be able to stop. This could be one of those 80-62 games where you say “The Spartans didn’t play that bad; Indiana is just that good” when it’s over. Remember last year’s meeting: MSU was a 2.5-point favorite and a win would have clinched an outright Big Ten title. The Spartans lost by 15. So, in 2013 take Indiana -9 1/2 because if the Hoosiers win it’ll be big. (If you’re really on the MSU bandwagon here then the advice is to take the Spartans +400 to win outright as I truly believe the winner of this game covers either way).
Other Big Ten Games:
Michigan (-5 1/2) at Illinois: If Michigan wins it likely will garner the AP’s No. 1 ranking for the first time since November 30, 1992. It’s a trap game of sorts for the Wolverines, not because a big game immediately follows (the Wolverines play Northwestern on Wednesday before traveling to Indiana on Saturday) or because Michigan is coming off a high-energy victory (beating Purdue by 15 at home was expected). The reason I’d call this a trap game is because of a “meaningless” No. 1 ranking being on the line. John Beilein will down play it and say all it means is the program is headed in the right direction. But when dealing with 18 to 22-year-old kids it’s inevitable that the kids will be pressing, even if just slightly, with No. 1 in their sights.
It’s also worth noting that the one way to beat Michigan (outside of the Wolverines just having a putrid offensive game) is by having a great 3-point shooting night. Occasionally, that is Illinois’ specialty. At Gonzaga earlier in the year Illinois went 11-for-26 from deep en route to an 85-74 win. In the Maui Invitational the Fighting Illini went 13-for-29, 11-for-28, and 10-for-25 against USC, Chaminade and Butler, respectively to win the championship. We know Illinois will shoot a lot of 3s and probably make at least seven. It’s getting that eighth, ninth and even tenth to fall that will be the difference in a win (cover?) or loss.
The Pick: I’ve toggled back and forth on this one. Kenpom has Michigan winning 76-67, which obviously covers the spread. If this was a noon Sunday tip I’d tend to agree. But playing in the evening in Champaign is always rough. It would not shock me in the least to see Illinois win this game (that’s the nature of the beast playing on the road in the Big Ten). Like the MSU/Indiana game, I believe the winner will cover the spread. Despite the night game aura and a sense that Illinois isn’t totally outclassed in this spot, I still think the Wolverines pick up the win. That clanky Illinois 3-point offense will prove too unreliable. The bricks add up, Michigan wins by at least a touchdown and, quite possibly, elevates to the #1 ranking when the polls come out tomorrow.
Iowa at Purdue (-2 1/2): I know Jamie is big on Iowa in this spot. If this were in Iowa City and the Hawkeyes were getting points it would be a steal. But it’s in West Lafayette and Purdue has been solid at home as of late (27-point win over West Virginia and an 18-point win over Penn State in the past two weeks).
The Pick: Iowa is a real sleeper NCAA Tournament team and winning these types of road games is the only way to justify a NCAA berth at 9-9 or even 8-10 in the Big Ten, regardless of the conference’s strength. Still, I can’t get over how much I like Purdue in this spot because the Boilermakers are in that similar we-can-make-the-tournament’s-play-in-game state. I like Purdue to win and cover the 2 1/2, further muddling the Big Ten’s bid to get a possible seventh (Iowa) or eighth (Purdue) team into the NCAA Tournament.
Monday solid plays:Pittsburgh +6 at Louisville: This has to be the bounce back of all bounce back games for Louisville. Pittsburgh isn’t a bad team but the nonconference schedule (outside of Michigan in the Preseason NIT) was laughable as usual. However, Big East road wins at Georgetown (by 28!!!) and Villanova (by 15) show this team is capable of locking teams down in their own buildings. Georgetown scored a measly 45 points while Villanova was stopped at 43. For a Louisville team that has struggled to score as of late this could be a problem. Louisville won’t lose a fourth straight, right? I have to believe the Cardinals will turn it around, but this will be another nail biter allowing Pitt to cover.
Kansas -8 at West Virginia: Kansas was my Preseason No. 1 for a reason. This team just wins, usually doing so with no mercy. West Virginia is in a complete rebuilding mode and Morgantown isn’t what it was the past few years in terms of hostility. Look for a solid double-digit win by the Jayhawks who very well could be No. 1 when this game is played.
Last week: 8-3 (NCAA hoops), 2-0 (NFL)2013 College Hoops Year-to-Date: 17-52013 Year-to-Date: 24-8