No. 4 Michigan State plays host to No. 1 Indiana
FEB 18, 2013 7:54p ET
This week, though, things get really serious.
Tuesday night, the fourth-ranked Spartans will take on top-ranked Indiana in a game that will go a long way toward deciding the Big Ten championship. The Spartans and Hoosiers both come into the game at 11-2, two games ahead of Michigan and Wisconsin.
If that's not enough to get you excited, though, how about this? Despite all of the great teams in Michigan State history, its sports department says this will be the first game in East Lansing to ever feature two top-5 teams.
For the Spartans, the game is the start of a four-game stretch that is almost as tough as the one that just derailed Michigan. In 16 days, they face four Top 20 teams. After hosting the Hoosiers, they play at No. 18 Ohio State, at No. 7 Michigan and host No. 19 Wisconsin. Indiana's run-in is a little easier, but they still have to go to Minnesota and Michigan, and host Ohio State.
If either team runs the table from here, they will not only be the Big Ten champions, they will probably get a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournaments. Even one loss has a very good shot of getting a share of the title and a top-two seed come Selection Sunday.
And if the Spartans and Hoosiers go 2-2 or worse — Michigan went 1-3 in its similar stretch — the Badgers and Wolverines would suddenly be right back into the championship picture.
So there are plenty of reasons to assume that the Breslin Center will be just as crazy Tuesday as it was a week ago, when the Spartans were running the Wolverines off the floor. How likely is a similar result?
Not terribly — Michigan came in to East Lansing reeling after a heartbreaking overtime loss to Wisconsin, while Indiana just destroyed Purdue. However, rising star Victor Oladipo sprained his ankle in the victory over the Boilermakers. Indiana coach Tom Crean said on Monday's conference call that he thinks Oladipo will play, but no one knows if he'll be at 100 percent.
Oladipo is a key offensive player for the Hoosiers — he has developed into an outstanding shooter — but he plays an even bigger role on the defensive end. At different times during the Michigan win, he guarded everyone from point guard Trey Burke to power forward Glenn Robinson III, and played a key role in holding Robinson to two points on 1-6 shooting.
Oladipo's outside shooting has also opened up the inside for Cody Zeller, who has scored at least 14 points in each of Indiana's last six games. The last team to stop him, though, was Michigan State. Derrick Nix held Zeller to nine points and seven rebounds in their 75-70 loss in Bloomington on Jan. 27.
The challenge for Michigan State will be to repeat that — slow Zeller down without getting blown away by the 3-point shooting of Oladipo, Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls.
When Michigan State has the ball, everything starts with Keith Appling and Gary Harris in the backcourt. Appling isn't going to win the game with his shooting, but he's a smart point guard who knows how to get the ball to the people who will. That certainly includes Harris, who despite back and shoulder injuries, has turned into a strong contender for Big Ten Freshman of the Year. He's hitting better than 50 percent on 3-pointers in conference play.
Branden Dawson gives the Spartans a small forward who can get the ball to the rim and grab offensive rebounds, while Nix and Adreian Payne represent one of the league's most physical post duos.
On paper, and at Assembly Hall, Indiana comes out with a slight edge. This game, though, will be played at the Breslin Center. The Spartans are 14-0 at home this season, and haven't lost a home game to Indiana since Calbert Cheaney's Hoosiers knocked off Steve Smith's team in 1991.
It won't be as easy as it was last week against the Wolverines, but I see Michigan State and Tom Izzo finding a way to win this one. That would set things up nicely for Michigan State's third mega-game in 19 days — a showdown at the Crisler Center against a desperate Michigan squad trying to get themselves back into the championship mix.