After No. 1 Indiana and No. 4 Michigan State do battle on Tuesday night, we will finally have a clear front-runner in the packed Big Ten.
The premier conference in college hoops this season has been impossible to predict, and as a result, the picture at the top has been cloudier than the back seat of Snoop Dogg's—or even Snoop Lion's—limo.
But the Hoosiers and Spartans have begun to distance themselves.
Indiana has won three in a row and eight of nine—including a 75-70 win over MSU in Bloomington—and Michigan State has won five in a row and 11 of 12—including one of the most dominant performances of the season in a 75-52 win over Michigan last week.
Suddenly, both schools are 11-2 in the conference, two games ahead of the rest of the pack and looking to get lonely at the top.
The Big Ten—which has boasted seven teams in the Top 25 and six in the Top 10—has been chock-full of enthralling, must-see matchups, but the importance of this one may push it to the top of the list.
When: Tuesday, Feb. 19, at 7 p.m. ET
Where: Jack Breslin Student Events Center, East Lansing, Mich.
Live Stream: WatchESPN
Indiana Injury Report (via USA Today)
G Victor Oladipo, Ankle, Probable
F Austin Etherington, Knee, Out
Michigan State Injury Report (via USA Today)
G Travis Trice, Concussion, Questionable
F Kenny Kaminski, Shoulder, Out
What They're Saying
The Sporting News' Michael DeCourcy not only gives the Hoosiers encouraging news, but also sums up the significance of this anticipated game all in one tweet:
As for the Oladipo part, if you listen closely, you can hear a collective "phew" coming out of Bloomington. The athletic guard has arguably been the most impressive player in all of America this season.
As for the second part, I'm pretty sure "Game of the Century" has been used for about seven other Big Ten games this season, but I'm also pretty sure it has been fitting every single time. Tuesday will be no different.
Blow off your work, blow off school, blow off your significant other, blow off your kids. Do whatever you have to do to see this game.
On a different note, everyone knows how well big man Cody Zeller can effectively get out in transition, but Sports Illustrated's Luke Winn gives a stunningly impressive look:
Even after a made basket, Zeller and the ultra-fast Hoosiers are dangerous.
Michigan State put together one of the best defensive performances of the season last week against Michigan (0.790 points per possession allowed against one of the most efficient teams in America), and it will need the same type of performance to slow down Indiana.
Indiana Player to Watch: Will Sheehey
The Hoosiers have copious amounts of offensive weapons. "GaZeller" and Oladipo are unstoppable in transition, Christian Watford and Jordan Hulls are deadly from long range and freshman Yogi Ferrell can create off the dribble and distribute with excellent vision.
But when the Hoosiers are truly unbeatable, they are getting production from the bench. That starts with Will Sheehey.
The junior, of course, is fresh on the mind after last week's historic performance against Purdue (via ESPN Stats & Info)...
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
Will Sheehey went 9-for-9 from the field today for No. 1 Indiana, the most field goals made without a miss in school history.2/16/2013, 10:12:11 PM
...which sparked tweets like this one from CBS Sports' Jon Rothstein:
Jon Rothstein @JonRothstein
Will Sheehey goes 9-9 from the field as Indiana routs Purdue 83-55. Best sixth man in college basketball.2/16/2013, 9:32:41 PM
But that's nothing new from Sheehey.
The hard-nosed, back-down-to-no-one wing does a little bit of everything. He is a confident shooter (38.6 percent from deep, 57.1 effective field-goal percentage), a sneaky athlete who can attack the rim and a fearless role player who has a will to win that few others possess.
On the season, Sheehey is fourth on the team with 18.3 points per 40 and gives the Hoosiers important emotion and a bit of a nasty side. He's going to be crucial on the road.
Michigan State Player to Watch: Denzel Valentine
From one integral reserve to the next, Denzel Valentine is the typical Tom Izzo player.
The true freshman isn't the most athletic or most talented player in the nation—he was ranked just 107th coming out of high school by 247 Sports' composite rankings.
But he has a high basketball IQ and does a little bit of everything on the court:
As you can see, Valentine isn't going to light up the scoreboard, but he is efficient when he does shoot the ball.
Moreover, he's a 6'5" forward who handles the ball and has better vision than anyone on the team not named Keith, all the while providing terrific rebounding and defense.
Valentine is arguably one of the most under-the-radar true freshmen in the country, and he's giving Spartan fans production reminiscent of Draymond Green.
The matchups in this one are intriguing—mostly, who will Oladipo and Branden Dawson, two elite stoppers, guard?—but in the end, it will come down to the pace of the game.
If the Hoosiers can consistently get in transition, they will win. If things slow down and turn into a typical Big Ten, no-blood-no-foul, bruising battle, Michigan State will hold the advantage.
Controlling the pace starts with rebounding.
The Spartans are big on the inside. Zeller is tough to keep off the glass, but Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix, who have been playing well lately, are far more physical and powerful than Zeller and Watford, who serves as a stretch-4.
Moreover, Dawson matches up well with Oladipo on the glass.
Indiana is a very good rebounding team, but the Spartans have the bodies to win that battle.
Throw in the home-court advantage, and Tom Izzo's squad will be able to control the pace and earn the monumental victory.
Michigan State 70, Indiana 68
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