I thought the Big Ten race was supposed to come down to Michigan and Indiana, not Michigan State and Indiana? I kid, sort of. While Michigan (9-4 in the Big Ten) is two games back as we speak the Wolverines also have the easiest schedule (along with Wisconsin) down the stretch. Nevertheless, for the Spartans to be in the position they’re in again puts Tom Izzo’s greatness in the spotlight. Not only does Michigan State control it’s own destiny in it’s Big Ten Championship race but the Spartans have climbed to No. 4 in this week’s AP Poll (No. 5 in the Coaches Poll).
So, just a week after hosting arguably the biggest game in the history of the Breslin Center (No. 4 Michigan at No. 8 Michigan State), there is a new “biggest game in the history of the Breslin Center” as the Spartans host No. 1 Indiana.
We previewed the last matchup, a 75-70 Indiana win in late-January. Not much has changed since. That is still the only Michigan State (22-4, 11-2 Big Ten) loss in 2013 (the other Big Ten loss came at Minnesota on Dec. 31) and Indiana (23-3, 11-2) has continued to play phenomenal basketball outside of a late-game collapse and inexcusable inbound defense at Illinois. Honestly, the only difference in looking at the two teams is Michigan State’s offensive efficiency has jumped up nearly four points per 100 possessions in the past three weeks and Indiana’s Victor Oladipo’s ankle is close to having its own Twitter account.
The Spartans have the chance to defeat the fourth No. 1 team in the history of the program. The others: 1979 vs. Indiana State in the NCAA Title Game, 2007 vs. Wisconsin in East Lansing, 2009 vs. Louisville in the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight. (MSU is 3-18 all-time against the No.1 team).
This also marks the ninth time in MSU history the Spartans have been involved in a game between two Top 5 teams. The Spartans are 3-5 in such games with the majority coming in NCAA Tournament play.
Here’s a big breakdown of Tuesday’s showdown in East Lansing (h/t to Kenpom):
If you scrapped the names on the jerseys here the numbers look like a late-round NCAA Tournament matchup. That’s exactly how the lead-up to this game feels and, more importantly, that’s the likely result this game will have.
Of the Big Ten’s Big 5 (with apologies to whichever ESPN personality coined the Big 6 and included Minnesota, the Gophers are in that second tier with Illinois and Iowa), there are only three home losses: Indiana losing to Wisconsin, Ohio State losing to Indiana, and Wisconsin losing to Michigan State. The Spartans and Wolverines have all held serve in their home buildings which is pivotal in a Big Ten Championship race. Throw in the fact that Indiana already beat MSU in Bloomington this season and you see why this game is uber important for the Spartans.
Just like the last meeting, this game comes down to three keys: “Derrick Payne” vs. Cody Zeller, 3-point efficiency, and can Victor Oladipo be Victor Oladipo?
Derrick Payne vs. Cody Zeller: Under Izzo, one thing MSU has always had is a real solid post presence. From Antonio Smith (1995-99) to Aloysius Anagonye (1999-2003) to Zach Randolph (2000-01), to Erazem Lorbek (2002-03) to Paul Davis (2002-06) to Goron Suton (2005-2009). For the first time in his career Izzo has two post guys playing at a NBA-type level.
Derrick Nix said he was planning on taking over the role Draymond Green had the last few seasons which, on the surface, seemed laughable. Surprisingly, Nix has been great at directing plays through the post either taking his man one on one or delivering a picture-perfect pass to a guard for an open three. The fact that Izzo trusts Nix enough to, much of the time, run the offense through him, says all you need to know about Nix’s maturation in the past four years.
Adreian Payne’s biggest enemy is himself. When Payne is locked in he plays like a 1st round draft pick (usually that comes out in games against Ohio State). He’s improved his game by becoming a decent 3-point threat if left open (He’s shooting at a 47 percent clip on the year, making the most of his 15 long-range attempts). At 6-10, Payne is very much an athletic freak both offensively and defensively. When he channels that he becomes one phenomenal freak. The problem is Payne always needs some type of motivation. With the No. 1 team coming to town and a decent chance at a Big Ten title evolving from a victory it seems Payne will have plenty of motivation Tuesday night.
It isn’t that Indiana brings a slouch to the paint, of course. Cody Zeller, for as much as he’s been picked apart this year, is still a NBA lottery pick. He’ll be a solid, 10- to 12-year NBA player. His skill set is unique in that he’s a big part of the offense in the transition game, sometimes more so than in basic halfcourt sets. However, like any 2-on-1 matchup (outside of my brother and I taking on LeBron James), the duet has the ability to wear down the opposition. Nix’s gerth and bumping with Zeller in the paint is bound to take its toll. Zeller will likely have to check Payne which in some cases will require Zeller to play around the 3-point line. This type of matchup is a different dimension for Zeller. Zeller finished with a measly 9 points on 2-of-7 shooting in the season’s earlier matchup. He also had a pair of turnovers and just one offensive rebound. His 93 offensive rating is just one of three times in 26 games that he finished below the 100 mark. It wasn’t as if Zeller was in foul trouble either. He played 33 minutes and amassed just three fouls. Flopping home court advantages means that if Zeller puts up similar numbers in East Lansing the Spartans, thanks to Nix and Payne, will have a great chance for a victory.
The 3-pointer: In the last meeting one team went 11-of-23 (48 percent) from 3-point range while the other went 8-of-21 (38 percent). Logic and history would tell you the Hoosiers lit the nets up at home and that the triple played a big role in the victory. Shockingly, you’d be wrong. It was the Spartans who were on fire from deep, allowing them to keep the game within reach while playing (as some would say) 5-on-8. Gary Harris is, by far, the best 3-point shooter in the Izzo era. There have been a lot of “supposed to be great 3-point shooters” walking through MSU’s doors (ahem, Russell Byrd) but Harris is the real deal. He alone is a major reason for MSU’s success is the inside-outside game is more lethal than ever. For the Spartans, other players like Keith Appling, Denzel Valentine and even Payne will have to make a triple here and there to keep Indiana’s defense from sagging and suffocating Nix and Payne in the post.
For Indiana, a team filled with pure shooters, contesting all shots is key. Jordan Hulls is a catch-coming-off-a-screen kind of guy. Not allowing him loose will be crucial. The same thing can be said about Oladipo, Will Sheehey, Christian Watford and Yogi Ferrell. Indiana will have to get the edge in one-on-one matchups to allow for open looks, something the Hoosiers did well in the first 20 minutes in Bloomington but struggled in the second half. Defending the three against Indiana is more than just hoping the road rims are more unkind. The Hoosiers are second in the country in 3-point percentage (42.7) meaning Indiana is going to make shots. The defense will just help determine how many. Of course, MSU just held Michigan (who was shooting above 40 percent) to a 6-for-19 shooting night and Michigan is now at 39.2 percent.
If the 3-point shooting mirrors what happened in Bloomington the Spartans should win fairly easily (easily in the sense MSU would hold a comfortable 6- to 9-point lead for much of the entertaining game). If the roles are reversed then MSU will have another hurdle to climb in order to prevent Indiana from winning at Michigan State for the first time in 18 tries.
Can Victor Oladipo be Victor Oladipo? There really is no debate that Oladipo’s performance against MSU in late January was the game that catapulted him into the National Player of the Year discussion. His final line: 21 points, seven rebounds, six steals, three blocks. It was the type of transcendent performance that, if it happened in a title game would go down in NCAA lore. Oladipo was everywhere on that Sunday. Now, he’s recovering from a sprained ankle that kept him out of the second half against Purdue. (The big question is, if Indiana was playing a Big Ten big boy that day and in a hotly contested game would he have returned? Was he rested as a precaution but also because Indiana was on its way to a 28-point win?) All signs appear to Oladipo playing against the Spartans. If he’s close to 100 percent can he be a dominant as he was at Assembly Hall? If he’s at 75 percent can the Spartans take advantage of that weakened 25 percent by making him move all over the floor more on defense?
We should know two things early on: Is Oladipo close to 100 percent and what is Tom Izzo’s game plan for attacking his vulnerability? I would imagine Crean will put Oladipo on either Appling (to disrupt MSU’s offensive facilitator) or on Harris (to keep MSU’s best 3-point shooter from getting going). Either way, those with Oladipo as a defender should run around screens all day and make him cut and work harder than he’s worked in days. Like a WWE wrestler attacking an opponent’s weakened shoulder, MSU should “attack” Oladipo’s injured ankle.
The pick: I was very curious what the line here would be. Kenpom has the Hoosiers winning 71-69 (he had them winning 71-68 before MSU’s slaughter of Michigan earlier last week). After the Wolverines were anywhere from 1- to 2-point favorites in East Lansing I figured it would be hard pressed for Vegas to give MSU points here. Sure enough I was right. The Spartans opened as 1 1/2-point favorites late last night (5Dimes) and are now solid 2-point favorites across the board. Think of that as pretty much a pick’em. While it could easily be another Big Ten classic it is worth noting these recent classics have not been one-point games. The Spartans are just playing phenomenal ball right now and giving 2 points is no biggie at home. Look for the Spartans to take control early in the second half en route to a 5- to 7-point victory (and 1-game lead in the best conference in the land).
Other Big Ten Games:
Minnesota (18-8, 6-7 Big Ten) at Ohio State (18-7, 8-5), 7 p.m., Wednesday (Big Ten Network)
Kenpom: Ohio State 67-62
Line: [UPDATE Ohio State -6]
Analysis: Early in the season Minnesota looked like a Final Four contender. Now Minnesota looks like a typical Tubby Smith Gophers team that gets into the tournament in the No. 7 to No. 11 seed range. Minnesota is just too inconsistent to be taken seriously, especially on the road. Ohio State has its own struggles, but coming off an embarrassing 22-point loss at Wisconsin I would expect an Ohio State to be ready to open a can of whoop ass. The line will likely be in the 4-6 range and I would expect Ohio State to win comfortably, by double digits most likely. Take the Buckeyes unless the line gets higher than 7 1/2. [UPDATE: The line fluctuated around 5 1/2 and 6 for the Buckeyes. It seems like a good line but the Buckeyes should win comfortably. Go with Ohio State].
Wisconsin (18-8, 9-4) at Northwestern (13-13, 4-9), 9 p.m., Wednesday (Big Ten Network)
Kenpom: Wisconsin 59-51
Line: [UPDATE: Wisconsin -8]
Analysis: Here’s what you can always know about Wisconsin: The Badgers will be in the Big Ten race until the end, but a few puzzling road losses will do them in. The Badgers lost at Iowa (and should have lost at home against Iowa) and are a few games removed from blowing a game at Minnesota. This is one of those games Wisconsin should win but very well could lose. The Wildcats have beaten Wisconsin once in the last 10 meetings (66-63 at home in 2009). Interestingly enough, that was the only time the Wildcats were favored (1-point favorites). Northwestern is 4-6 ATS in those meetings meaning there is a decent chance the Wildcats don’t win here but do cover. It all depends on which Northwestern team shows up. As a 3-point ‘dog this weekend against an Illinois team they beat on the road earlier this season all the Wildcats did was lose by 21. Yes, this same Northwestern team beat Minnesota at home before the Gophers were really in free-fall mode. I’m curious what this line will stick at, but I would take Wisconsin to cover anything 9 1/2 or lower. If you get a double-digit line you might want to take a flier on the Wildcats. [UPDATE: Due to the single-digit line, take Wisconsin].
Penn State (8-17, 0-13) at Illinois (19-8, 6-7), 8:15 p.m., Thursday (Big Ten Network)
Kenpom: Illinois 76-59
Line: [UPDATE: Illinois -16]
Analysis: The Illinois are out of their funk. Once a national darling to a distrubing 2-7 in Big Ten play, Illinois is now on the brink of pulling back to .500 in the Big Ten. Like many teams, when Illinois is lethal from 3-point range it is tough to beat. When John Groce’s team spends 40 minutes clanking the iron this team looks bad. This is another line that will be interesting. An overmatched Penn State team was a 22 1/2-point ‘dog at Michigan and played a heck of a game (lost 79-71). I wouldn’t expect this line to be in the 20s, but likely around 15. The hunch will be better on Thursday so check back for the final pick. My gut, like the Michigan game, is to expect Penn State to put up a huge fight in search for it’s first Big Ten victory meaning the huge spread works in Nittany Lions backers’ favor.[UPDATE: Penn State has only lost two road Big Ten games by more than this spread - 23 points at Indiana and 18 points at Purdue - meaning the odds and history are on your side here. Expect Illinois to win, but Penn State to keep it close enough].
Iowa (17-9, 6-7) at Nebraska (12-14, 3-10), 9 p.m., Thursday (ESPN2)
Kenpom: Iowa 66-59
Analysis: Nebraska is one heck of a team at home. I say that not as a joke even though Nebraska is 2-5 at home in Big Ten play and also lost to Kent State at home. Nebraska is one of those NIT-hopeful teams that plays much better at home than on the road even in defeat. Heck, this weekend the ‘Huskers were 9-point ‘dogs to Michigan State and cut the deficit to 41-40 midway through the second half. Iowa is the better team and has so much to fight for in terms of NCAA Tournament selection but this should be a dog fight.Check the line later but if it’s in that 7-8 range it might not be a bad idea to back Nebraska.
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