There’s a lot to like about Tom Izzo’s Spartans, currently ninth in the country and second in the Big Ten. They’re big, they’re experienced and they’ve got Izzo calling the shots, which is always an advantage.
But the Spartans have at least one win over every Big Ten team they've met this season except one—Indiana.
It’s fair to be optimistic about Michigan State’s NCAA tournament chances, but should the veteran-laden team run into the Hoosiers, it could very well mean the end of the season. (There’s no shame in this by the way. Indiana is really, really good.)
In the two meetings, both Spartan losses, the Hoosiers exposed Michigan State in ways no other Big Ten team could exploit. Indiana matched their guard play, overwhelmed the Spartans with their athleticism and stretched their frontcourt out of its comfort zone.
In both games, Yogi Ferrell rendered Keith Appling a non-factor. He shot 16 percent (2-of-12), coughed the ball up eight times, and often shot recklessly instead of engineering the offense. Hoosier guard Jordan Hulls, the fourth-best option on Indiana, stretched the Spartans' defense as thin as possible and knocked down seven three-pointers in the two games. But Hulls is just one spoke on Indiana’s three-point shooting cycle.
The Hoosiers are the Big Ten's best shooting team from deep (43 percent), and they parlayed that into a massive advantage vs. Michigan State. Interestingly, the Hoosiers’ perimeter shooting is actually a byproduct of their big men.
Most Big Ten teams can’t compete with the Spartans in the paint. Derrick Nix is too entrenched in the lane, while Adreian Payne has good mobility for his size and can swat or alter incoming slashers. But Indiana’s frontcourt of Cody Zeller and Christian Watford can bang down low with Tom Izzo’s pair and can also pull them outside.
Watford is 29-of-55 from the three-point line in conference play, good for a league-leading 52.7 percent. And Zeller, even though he doesn’t shoot three-pointers, is more than capable of facing up a defender a step or two inside the arc. In fact, in the second meeting against the Spartans in East Lansing on Feb. 19, Zeller scored the majority of his 17 points off of set shots instead of backing down Nix, because he knew the big man couldn’t get out to defend him.
But that still doesn’t explain how Indiana’s frontcourt frees up perimeter shooters like Jordan Hulls and Victor Oladipo. Zeller and Watford are both extremely active big men, who are both comfortable either dribbling or setting high screens. Both can dribble across the perimeter utilizing a screen, which forces the Spartans’ frontcourt to make a decision.
Nix or Payne either have to switch on the screen to one of the Hoosiers’ quicker players or get through the screen and extend to the perimeter before Zeller or Watford can take a shot. The other option is that an Indiana guard could roll to the basket, often times leaving Nix or Payne in his wake. Either way, it’s a massive mismatch for coach Tom Crean.
Watch in the first meeting how Oladipo takes advantage of a high screen (Payne is caught in-between) then bursts to the basket at the :15 second mark. Also notice how Cody Zeller attacks the rim from the perimeter at the :27 second mark.
Indiana shot 16-of-39 from the three-point in their two wins over Michigan State, and most of those three-pointers were the genesis of a screen and a mismatch.
It’s the primary reason why Michigan State is vulnerable against the Hoosiers.
The Spartans do have options, though. Matt Costello, a 6’9’’ freshman played the most valuable minutes of his career against the Hoosiers in the second meeting, landing three massive blocks, including one against Zeller and two on driving layups from Ferrell and Oladipo.
In contrast, Nix has lead feet in the paint, rarely rotating to assist with a driving player. Costello hasn’t played much this season, but he’s much more mobile than Nix and is way more capable of sticking with Zeller as he roams in half-court sets.
With Payne a fixture and Costello and Nix splitting time at center, the Spartans may not necessarily keep up offensively with Indiana’s frontcourt, but they certainly won’t kill you on defense.
The Spartans’ only real advantage when facing Indiana is in freshman shooting guard Gary Harris. Hulls, who usually checks him, isn’t a good defender, and Harris has the tools to beat him inside and out.
But one advantage usually won’t beat the No. 1 team in the country. Izzo needs to get creative should the teams meet in the conference tournament or the NCAAs. He needs to adjust on the fly and nullify Indiana’s lethal screens, which open up the floodgates beyond the arc.
Unless Izzo does, the Hoosiers could very well be the team to cut Michigan State’s season short.