Believe in the Spartans
Michigan State forward Derrick Nix thinks his team is underrated. He said so last week, just a couple of days after Nix and the Spartans throttled Michigan:
"[Indiana's Victor] Oladipo, he's no different from [Branden] Dawson. Dawson's not on the draft board, Oladipo is in the top 15," Nix said. "[Adreian] Payne is 6-10, and he can do everything [Indiana's Cody] Zeller can do. He's not on the draft board, Zeller's in the top five.
"I can do everything Reggie Johnson can do from Miami, he's on draft boards, I'm not," Nix said. "Keith [Appling] can do everything Trey Burke can do, Trey Burke's in the top five, Keith's not. Gary [Harris] can do everything that [Shabazz] Muhammad from UCLA can do."
I don't think Nix was accurate in much of any of that, but his scouting accuracy is beside the point. The point is, that's why Michigan State can finish its already excellent season with a Big Ten title: because the Spartans believe, even if you don't.
Of course, belief only goes so far. It helps to have talent, and the Spartans have plenty of that: Appling is one of the nation's best point guards on both ends of the floor (and he's awfully good in transition, too); Harris has mostly lived up to the high expectations surrounding his arrival (he's one of the most efficient freshman scorers in the country and makes 44.2 percent of his 3-pointers); Payne has added touch to his sheer athleticism and shot-blocking; and Dawson is a perfect tweener athlete type, a guy who can run the floor and crash the boards in equal measure.
And then there's Nix. In the course of four years, Nix has gone from the guy who openly wept at a Michigan State vigil for coach Tom Izzo (Izzo was connected with the NBA's Cleveland Cavaliers job opening at the time), to being too heavy to earn minutes, to nearly getting kicked off the team, to an offseason marijuana arrest (the charge was later dropped), to a guy who chiseled his frame down to a manageable size and uses it to his advantage every night.
There are some major obstacles standing in the way of a Spartans Big Ten title, beginning with Indiana and including a return trip to Michigan on March 2. But Nix has come so far, and worked so hard, and he and his teammates feed on what they still have left to prove. Are you really going to bet against that?
Depth, versatility give IU edge
The Big Ten is a gauntlet.
Indiana and Michigan State lead the field. But I don't think the title hopes of Michigan and Wisconsin are dead yet.
Yet it's clear the Hoosiers and Spartans have the edge. Two teams with distinct styles but equal records are in a tie for first place. So who will win the conference?
The numbers alone support that assumption. The Hoosiers are ranked first in adjusted offensive efficiency, per Ken Pomeroy. They're shooting 50.2 percent from the field, fourth-best in the nation. They lead the Big Ten with 43.3 percent shooting from the 3-point line. They're playing both ends of the floor, too. Their Big Ten opponents have connected on 39.9 percent of their field goals, second in conference play.
But Indiana is flawed.
The final minutes of a Feb. 7 loss at Illinois showcased a rare stretch of inefficiency for the Hoosiers. They also fell asleep in the second half against Minnesota on Jan. 12, even though they ultimately won that game. And they're committing turnovers on 19.2 percent of their possessions, 117th nationally per Pomeroy.
Plus, Victor Oladipo turned an ankle last weekend. He's expected to return as early as Tuesday's matchup at Michigan State, but when will he return to 100 percent?
No team in the country, however, is better than the Hoosiers when they play their best basketball.
When Cody Zeller is running the floor and Yogi Ferrell is cutting through defenses and Jordan Hulls is on and Oladipo is doing what Oladipo does, Indiana is on a different level within the Big Ten and nationally.
Yes, the Hoosiers will face a pair of difficult road tests in the coming weeks against Michigan State and Michigan. And Ohio State travels to Bloomington on March 5.
But Indiana will be the tougher team in every pending matchup. The Hoosiers are deep. They're versatile.
They have a young NBA-destined big man named Cody Zeller and another guy who can play at the next level in Oladipo. They're the most potent assembly in the Big Ten when they want to be. And right now, they're playing like a team that understands its potential.