The Indiana Hoosiers and Michigan State Spartans are currently sharing the penthouse atop the Big Ten standings. They're uneasy roommates, to say the least, especially after IU's use of the Spartans' figurative toothbrush and drinking the last of the milk in last month's victory at Assembly Hall.
Indiana visits Michigan State's turf Tuesday night. Sparty hasn't been a hospitable host to anyone this season, sporting a pristine 15-0 home record.
If the Hoosiers want to be the first to darken the Spartans' doorstep, here are some key factors to pulling off the victory.
In the first meeting between these two teams, Michigan State kept itself in the game by making 11-of-23 attempts from three-point land. What kept Indiana in front was tightening the perimeter defense and holding MSU without a triple for the game's final 10:40.
The Spartans missed their last six attempts of that game. The lead was never more than five points, but Michigan State never managed to tie the game, either.
Over MSU's last three games, the Spartans have shot 33.3 percent (15-of-45) from long range. That's not a figure that inspires a lot of confidence, but it was plenty to get them past Purdue, Michigan and Nebraska.
Indiana has held their opponents to 28 percent from deep over its last six-plus games, including those last 10 minutes against Michigan State. If the Hoosiers can keep hands in faces and contest every look, the Spartan offense will be forced to work even harder to get inside.
Six free throws.
That was all the work Michigan State got from the line last month at Assembly Hall. That game is one of only three this season in which Sparty has taken fewer than 12 foul shots, and the figure is unacceptable for a team that averages 20 FTA's on the year.
With Branden Dawson, Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne, the Spartans have plenty of size to pound into the lane, seeking to draw some fouls against IU star Cody Zeller. That should be where Michigan State's offense tries to establish an early advantage.
Nix is of particular importance. In MSU's past three games, the Spartans have averaged 75 points per game, with Nix contributing 14.7 of those. In the five games prior to that stretch, Nix averaged 6.4 PPG and shot 41 percent from the floor. The team averaged a mere 64 PPG in that span.
Christian Watford's strong defensive performance against Purdue man-child A.J. Hammons was a key to IU's Saturday humiliation of the Boilermakers, and he'll have to man up again to help out on Michigan State's bigs.
Zeller is the one player Indiana can least afford to lose, since no IU fan will be comfortable seeing Hanner Mosquera-Perea logging long minutes against a fellow potential NCAA No. 1 seed.
Michigan State point guard Keith Appling has averaged better than 16 points and four rebounds per game over his last five, all Spartan victories.
It probably still hasn't helped him get the taste of his day in Bloomington out of his mouth. Appling played only 19 minutes, seven in the second half, scored three points and committed four turnovers before fouling out.
It's unlikely Appling will be as overaggressive defensively as he was last month, so it'll be up to IU's guards to defend him tightly and force bad shots.
His shot hasn't fallen over his last two games, especially from long range (2-for-13). He did manage to get to the line 10 times against Nebraska, a game more along the lines of his usual form. Appling is one of the Big Ten's most prolific free-throw shooters, taking 5.4 attempts per game, so Yogi Ferrell will need to be highly conscious of Appling attacking the basket.
If the Hoosiers want to get Appling in foul trouble again, a charge counts just the same as a defensive reach-in. Backup Travis Trice's chances of playing "don't look real good," as coach Tom Izzo told MLive.com, so if IU can once again cut the head off the Michigan State snake, a win could be in its grasp.
Against Purdue, Will Sheehey scored, if you'll pardon the pun, at will. His 9-for-9 shooting—a new school record—and 22 points helped the Hoosiers bury the Boilers for the fourth straight meeting. How he follows that game will be critical to IU's chances at the Breslin Center.
The last time Sheehey cracked double figures was a 13-point effort in the loss to Illinois. IU rebounded well to win at Ohio State, but Sheehey took some questionable shots en route to a 2-for-6 outing. Another night of ill-advised pull-up three-pointers will hurt the Hoosiers, unless, of course, the shots go in.
Sheehey's recent history against Michigan State is slightly more favorable. He made 3-of-4 for eight points and added three boards in the win last month.
His ability to help guard the Spartan front line will be crucial, and coach Tom Crean wants to have him on the court without concerns over his shot selection.
The IU faithful want to see more pictures like this one on Tuesday night, especially if it's Victor Oladipo leading the break. The condition of his ankle, injured in the first half against Purdue, will be closely monitored leading up to game time Tuesday.
Michigan State failed to score in the final 3:32 of the game in Bloomington, primarily because the pace of the game had taken the Spartans' legs away. Coach Tom Izzo acknowledged as much in his postgame comments, saying, "Down the stretch, we were really sucking air and that caused us not to jam or step up or switch."
Including the Michigan State win, Indiana has had four Big Ten games of 69 possessions or more after routinely bettering that mark against its overmatched non-conference opponents. MSU has played 69 or more four times all season. A faster tempo will greatly favor Indiana's transition-oriented game.
IU has not won in East Lansing since February 1991. If the Hoosiers can make Michigan State run again and keep the game close, the burden will be on the Spartans to show more finishing kick than they managed in Bloomington.
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