Michigan State Spartans
Current record: 24-5 (13-3)
Current RPI: 4 (IU is #18)
Current Sagarin: 4 (IU is #11)
Current Pomeroy: 3 (IU is #12)
2010-11 record: 19-15 (9-9), lost to UCLA in first round of NCAA Tournament
2010-11 RPI: 45
2010-11 Sagarin: 45
2010-11 Pomeroy: 39
Series: IU leads 65-49
Last Michigan State win: 12/28/2011 (80-65 in East Lansing)
Last IU win: 2/16/2008 (80-61 in Bloomington)
Last MSU win in Bloomington: 2/16/2010 (72-58)
TV: 7:00 tonight, ESPN
Admit it, you were thinking about it. A no-show loss at Minnesota, followed by getting outmuscled by Michigan State at home, then upset by a hot-shooting Purdue team on senior night, followed by getting Hoffarbered by either Penn State or Nebraska on the first day of the Big Ten Tournament. It's difficult to shake the pessimism embedded by three years of futility. In a game that felt for all the world like a trap, IU manhandled Minnesota in The Barn, effectively clinched an NCAA bid, and now, all feels right in the world, even though three of the four things listed above still could happen. The difference, of course, is that the next two weeks now feel like an opportunity instead of a burden.
The first opportunity, of course, comes tonight when Indiana hosts Michigan State. The Spartans suffered through a rare off year in 2011, characterized by a number of things, including nearly losing at home to a horrid IU team. MSU survived its typically rugged non-conference schedule this season with losses only to North Carolina and Duke, and have had winning streaks of 15 and seven games (the latter is an active streak). The Spartans haven't been invincible in Big Ten road games (they have lost at Northwestern, Michigan, and Illinois), but they also won comfortably at Ohio State and Purdue, and won in overtime at Wisconsin. MSU hasn't lost to anyone in nearly a month, not since losing at Illinois on January 31. The Spartans already have clinched a share of the Big Ten title, their seventh under Tom Izzo, and can clinch the league outright with either one more win or with one more loss by both Michigan and Ohio State. In short, a win over the Spartans would be every bit the equal of IU's wins over Kentucky and Ohio State (and perhaps ahead of the latter, given OSU's recent struggles).
This would be a nice milestone win for IU; it would be IU's first win over MSU in four years, and would be Tom Crean's first-ever win over his mentor. Also, coupled with a win over Purdue and no bad losses in the Big Ten Tournament, it probably would propel IU into a top four seed in the NCAA Tournament, and, with NCAA first round sites in Louisville, Nashville, and Columbus, probably some NCAA games close to home. Finally, the game has Big Ten Tournament implications. IU still seems destined for the 5 seed, no matter what happens tonight, as long as the Hoosiers beat Purdue. Technically, however, IU still could end up anywhere between 3 and 6. No matter what happens tonight, if Purdue wins out, then the Boilermakers will be the 5 seed and IU will be 6. If IU wins out, then the Hoosiers will move into the #4 slot if either Wisconsin or Ohio State loses out, and into the 3 slot if both of them lose out. The latter seems incredibly unlikely, and it will be surprising if Wisconsin, which hosts Illinois and Minnesota, loses even one game. OSU, which finishes on the road against Northwestern and Michigan State, could lose out. OSU should beat Northwestern, at least, but the Buckeyes haven't been playing well, and I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say that tomorrow night's game is the biggest in the history of Northwestern basketball. So, stranger things, etc.
But, for any of that to matter, IU must find a way to handle the Spartans, and it won't be easy. Over the years, the Spartans' game has been to so thoroughly dominate the boards--to give themselves multiple chances on most possessions and to allow second chances almost never--that none of the other stuff matters. Take, for instance, the 2009 Spartans. MSU went 31-7, played in the NCAA title game, and won the Big Ten title by four games. As always, the Spartans owned the boards at both ends, but didn't really stand out in terms of shooting, turnover percentage, field goal defense, or anything else. In 2012, that's been different. Of course, the Spartans are excellent at rebounding: they corral 38 percent of their misses (#18 nationally) and allow opponents only 26.4 (#16). Where MSU really stands out in a way that even their Final Four teams of the past decade have not is on field goal defense. This year, MSU is holding opponents to 28.2 percent from behind the arc (#5) and 42.4 from inside the arc (#15). In addition, MSU is shooting very well from two point range, 52.2 percent #27). In Big Ten play, MSU ranks #1 or #2 in the following categories: efficiency, effective field goal percentage, rebound percentage, and two point shooting percentage on offense; and efficiency, effective field goal percentage, rebound percentage, three point shooting percentage, two point shooting percentage, and steal percentage on defense. Usually, MSU is awesome on the boards and somewhere between "pretty good" and "not terrible" at everything else. This year, MSU is awesome at a lot of things. As formidable as MSU is in any season, this probably is the Spartans' best team since their golden era of 1999-2001.
As you can see, the Spartans have a balanced attack, strong senior leadership, and quite a bit of depth. Draymond Green is in the hunt for Big Ten MVP, and newcomers Brandon Wood (senior transfer from Valparaiso) and Branden Dawson (freshman/the bane of Matt Painter's existence) have been solid as well.
As daunting as the Spartans are, IU can take comfort in the fact that for 14 minutes of IU's loss in East Lansing this season, the Hoosiers played probably their best basketball of the season, outscoring MSU 39-11 in the middle portion of the game. Unfortunately, MSU led 34-16 when IU's run began, and finished the game on a 35-11 run and won by 15. It was a strange game, but hopefully an energetic IU team will find a way.
Well, what else can be said? It's been a fun season, and still will have been a fun season if IU can't find a way to win. But other than in that blip against Minnesota, IU has once again made Assembly Hall a tough place to play. Win or lose, let's hope that is the case for the Spartans tonight.