After a pre-conference slate against which IU met or exceeded expectations in every single game, the Hoosiers turn their attention to the Big Ten and the Michigan State Spartans. IU fans have been looking at this stretch (the MSU and OSU games) with trepidation ever since the schedule was released. Michigan State has been the leading Big Ten program of the post-Knight era and is the only Big Ten program to have won an NCAA championship since the 1980s. Even before Tom Izzo turned the Spartans into a national power, IU struggled at the Breslin Center. The Spartans' arena opened in November 1989, and IU is 1-17 there all-time, and the Hoosiers have now lost 16 in a row there since the lone win in 1991. There have been close calls, including last year's surprising overtime loss, which I called at the time one of the most gut-wrenching games of the Crean era. IU led by 6 with two minutes left, but a combination of poor free throw shooting and excellent offensive rebounding by MSU forced the game to overtime.
After an unusually mediocre season in 2010-11, MSU seems to be back to normal. The Spartans managed a 9-2 record against their typically tough non-conference schedule, losing only to North Carolina and Duke and winning at Gonzaga. As has been the case for eons, the Spartans specialize in rebounding, rebounding, rebounding. MSU is in the top 20 in OR percentage at both ends of the court: 39 percent on the offensive boards and 25 percent for their opponents on the other end. This is the Spartans' calling card, and even their best teams often have fairly mediocre field goal percentages and turnover percentages (both offensive and defensive). What stands out about this MSU team is that in addition to the typically excellent rebounding numbers, the Spartans have been very effective at field goal defense, holding their opponents to 29 percent from behind the arc and 42 percent from two point range. Even in their losses, MSU held North Carolina to .97 points per possession and Duke to just over a point per possession. The Spartans steal the ball on 12 percent of possessions and block 15 percent of shot attempts. While Kentucky is a very good defensive team, this game, on the road, will be by far the toughest test for the Hoosiers' high-powered offense so far.
The Spartans have a fairly balanced scoring attack, with Draymond Green leading the way in scoring, blocks, and rebounding. Brandon Wood, a transfer from Valparaiso taking advantage of the grad student loophole, is making the most of his single season at MSU, averaging over 10 points per game and shooting 40 percent from three point range. Freshman Branden Dawson, an elite recruit from Gary high sought by Purdue and others, is playing well as a true freshman, scoring 8.8 per game on 56 percent shooting and with 4.7 rebounds in only 21 minutes per game.
IU played very well offensively at East Lansing last year, and a hot start offensively against the stifling Spartan defense would be a very good sign. The biggest concern for IU, by far, is on the boards. Cody Zeller, Derek Elston and Christian Watford really need to have their best rebounding games of the year. What we don't know is whether Will Sheehey or Verdell Jones III is available for the game. Sheehey apparently injured his ankle while Jones has a hip flexor injury. Regardless, I think it's important that IU fans stay on an even keel. Even if the Hoosiers start 0-2 in the conference, all of the Hoosiers' goals, even the unexpected goals such as contending for the Big Ten title, are in reach. On the eve of Big Ten play, here is how Ken Pomeroy rates IU's chances for victories, from least likely to most likely:
@ Wisconsin 17%
@ OSU 22%
@ MSU 43%
@ Purdue 51%
@ Minnesota 65%
@ Michigan 66%
@ Nebraska 81%
@ Iowa 84%
@ PSU 87%
PSU 95 %
Now, I don't necessarily buy these percentages. I think there is a good chance that IU is at its high water mark in the Pomeroy ratings. Still, the percentages are useful for ranking IU's schedule from easiest to toughest. If IU were to go 14-4, or 13-5, or 12-6, records that would have seemed beyond realistic expectations before the season, then IU still would be expected to lose these two games. I hope IU plays well, but IU could very well produce its two best performances of the season and still start 0-2. As I have said before, these game should be viewed as an opportunity, not with dread. If IU goes 0-2, it's far from the end of the world. If we do any better than 0-2, then we likely are in for a very special season. It's going to be a fun week, regardless.