From Joe Rexrode of the Detroit Free Press:
“I don’t know if it’s us as players, I don’t know if it’s Michigan State, I don’t know what it is. I just feel like none of us get credit. (Indiana’s Victor) Oladipo is no different than (Branden) Dawson. Dawson’s not on the draft board, Oladipo is in the top 15.
“Payne is 6-10, can do everything that (Cody) Zeller can do. He’s not on the draft board, Zeller is in the top 5. I mean, I can do everything Reggie Johnson from Miami can do. He’s on draft boards, I’m not. Keith (Appling) can do everything Trey Burke can do. Trey Burke’s in the top 5, Keith’s not. Gary (Harris) can do everything that (Shabazz) Muhammad from UCLA can do. He’s on draft boards, Gary’s not. We’re just, we’re underdogs.”
The bottom line is that this is a battle between the top two teams in the Big Ten. And Nix has a point.
Indiana (12th in adjusted defensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy) was the favorite five months ago. The No. 1 Hoosiers are exactly whom most expected them to be. They have the top adjusted offensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy. They’re shooting 43.3 percent from the 3-point line in conference play and they’re holding opponents to 39.9 percent shooting from the field, second in the Big Ten.
Michigan State’s numbers aren’t as sexy. But the No. 4 Spartans are playing the gritty basketball that has led past Michigan State teams to extensive runs in the NCAA tournament. They’re big and physical inside with Nix and Adreian Payne. They have a true floor leader in Keith Appling.
So what are the most significant factors in this battle for first place in the Big Ten?
Victor Oladipo’s ankle -- The versatile guard probably will play Tuesday. But every ankle injury is different. And it’s an ailment that can affect a player for weeks, even months, depending on its severity. If he’s anything less than full strength, however, Indiana’s performance could be hindered in this critical matchup. He’s the best player on the roster. His offensive and defensive capabilities are crucial for Indiana. They need him to be ready in East Lansing. He finished with 21 points, 7 rebounds, 6 steals and 3 blocks in a 75-70 win over the Spartans on Jan. 27. How will Indiana respond if he can’t give them that effort?
Michigan State’s size inside -- Tom Izzo’s teams play a physical style that intimidates opponents. As a program, the Spartans are usually scrappy. And the 2012-13 edition is no different. I don’t think Michigan State is the league’s most talented squad. It’s not the deepest team in the league, either. But it’s the most physical and aggressive. Nix is an enforcer. Payne has been tough in recent weeks, too. The duo lacks Cody Zeller’s pro-level tools. But they’ll bully opponents. They’ve fed on young bigs in recent weeks. Purdue’s A.J. Hammons went 3-for-8 in a recent loss. Mitch McGary was 2-for-5 in last week’s 23-point loss at Michigan State. Michigan State’s brawn in the paint could be the difference Tuesday.
The 3-ball -- The Hoosiers (43.3 percent) and Spartans (39.7 percent) are first and second in 3-point shooting in the Big Ten. They’re both top five in the league in defending the arc, too. The latter is more significant for this matchup. Both teams thrive with the 3-ball. When they’re on, their offenses flow. They stretch defenses and give their post players more room to operate inside. They’re more unpredictable when they’re connecting from the 3-point line, too. The Hoosiers have five players shooting 39 percent or better from beyond the arc. Michigan State has to find a way to neutralize that weapon. And if the Spartans get hot from outside in the first half, Indiana could fall into an early deficit.
Cody Zeller, the difference-maker? -- In the first meeting, Zeller produced mild numbers (2-for-7, nine points). This, however, is different. There’s no guarantee that Oladipo will be 100 percent. Plus, no Big Ten squad has left the Breslin Center with a win in 2012-13. I just don’t think Indiana will become the first to achieve that feat in that hostile venue with a mediocre Zeller.
X’s and O’s -- You can’t ignore the value of coaching in this matchup. Izzo’s experience and coaching prowess give the Spartans an advantage on the sideline. He’s not coaching a roster packed with pros. And the Spartans aren’t exactly healthy. Travis Trice probably will miss Tuesday’s game with concussion-like symptoms. Gary Harris has struggled with back issues. Branden Dawson turned an ankle and took a blow to the head in Saturday’s win over Nebraska. But Izzo shines in these matchups. Magic Johnson will be in East Lansing as an analyst for ESPN. The entire college basketball world will be watching. That’s when Izzo is at his best. He can push the pace against the Spartans. They can attack the zone, if Indiana throws one at them. And they’re athletic enough to stick with the Hoosiers in a man-to-man scheme. But variation will be important. Both coaches will probably be forced to make adjustments throughout the game. Izzo will have the edge when those changes become necessary.
Prediction: Indiana 78, Michigan State 75