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February 19, 2013

'So many storylines for this game'

Indiana and Michigan State have already played their fair share of big games this season. But thanks to their accomplishments coming in, tonight's showdown at the Breslin Center makes this the biggest game yet. Both teams sit atop the conference with an 11-2 record, a full two game edge on third place. Tonight's winner will be in the driver's seat as we head to the homestretch or final third of the conference season.

"There's no question it is a big game," said Indiana coach Tom Crean last night on his radio show. "We're right square in the middle of this, here in the middle of February, and that's a big deal, because we haven't been in that situation. But you can't put so much into it that you lose sight."

The game has taken on even more hype in the state of Michigan than the Spartan's recent showdown with then No. 4 Michigan. Maybe in part because Michigan State humiliated their archrival, 75-52.

"Who'd ever think the game would overshadow the rivalry game, not that it overshadows but it's definitely a big, big game and it's kind of ironic that it's gonna be played against not only a great team but a great coach who's a good friend who helped build it here," said Spartan head coach Tom Izzo yesterday. "There's so many storylines for this game."

One big storyline is Indiana hasn't won at Michigan State since Calbert Cheaney was a skinny sophomore for Bob Knight's team. Cheaney will again be on the Hoosier bench but that last win in East Lansing came way back in 1991, just the second season the Breslin Center had been open.

That fact took Izzo by surprise when a reporter mentioned it to him yesterday.

"I was about to ask if you were on drugs or dial-a-clue. … Um, really?" said a puzzled Izzo after a long pause.

He paused again and reflected on the fact.

"I don't know, I mean a lot of teams have beaten us in that time here. Northwestern, Penn State, they all got us. Uh, I don't know. That's a strange event that's happened, I guess. The only thing I can say is I hope it doesn't change. But I'm kind of shocked by that. You've got me speechless…"

This will, however, be the first time a top ranked Indiana team has invaded East Lansing since the unbeaten Indiana team of 1975-76. It's been over 20 years since even a top five ranked Indiana team traveled here. The game also the first time two top five teams have ever played in East Lansing as the Spartans now sit at No. 4 in the Associated Press poll and No. 5 in the USA Today Coaches poll.

Indiana took the first game in Bloomington but it was a struggle with the Hoosiers prevailing, 75-70. Victor Oladipo was the difference maker for the home team, scoring a team high 21 points on 8-for-12 shooting. He was all over the court, snatching six steals and blocking three shots.

"He has a special guy," said Izzo. "He has his own (Mateen) Cleaves in Oladipo, a guy that winning is the most important thing to him. I think that branches out to the rest of their guys."

Oladipo's status for tonight was put into question after he rolled an ankle on Saturday against Purdue and missed the second half. But Tom Crean said yesterday he expects the junior to play tonight.

The question may be whether Oladipo is the same as the guy on his way to a first-team All-American type recognition? The Spartan coach knows his friend and adversary will make the most of such a catalyst.

"So if you really take a look, he had (Dwayne) Wade at Marquette," said Izzo. "That's what we do in these programs when you get certain players that can lift up the whole program you ride them like a horse at the Kentucky Derby. That's what he's done and that's what we've done here."

Of course the Hoosiers have another All-American candidate in 7-foot sophomore center Cody Zeller. But the real news is the terrific play of late from veteran forward Christian Watford and Will Sheehey.

"If you look at the last five or six games, we were the last team to hold him (Zeller) into single digits and I think they're going to him more and I think he's been more aggressive," said Izzo. "But nobody can match what Watford and Sheehey have done. I mean, Watford's shooting 55 percent from three the past five or six games. He's on the same tear that (Tim) Hardaway was on." 

The Spartans had big games in Bloomington from freshman Gary Harris (21 points) and junior power forward Adreian Payne (18 points). The two combined had eight of Michigan State's 11 three-pointers. In no other game has Michigan State made more than eight three-pointers.

Foul problems for leading scorer and point guard Keith Appling certainly didn't help the MSU cause in Bloomington. It was easily his worst game of the season as the junior turned it over four times without an assist and scored a season low three points in 19 minutes.

Indiana earned 20 trips to the line that day versus just six for the Spartans. As a team the Hoosiers lead the country in free throw attempts per game.

"It's one thing we talked to our bigs about," said Izzo. "Everybody talks about what Zeller doesn't do. People are mad he's not more physical, he's not more this. You get to the free throw line 8-9 times a game you're doing something and you're doing it pretty physical. So I would say in some ways we have to do a better job of taking it to them and not falling away, shooting those kind of shots and I think we gotta be more aggressive with the ball. Having Keith out of there hurts that too, cause he is the more aggressive guy penetrating and gets to the free throw line, puts people in a position where they can get to the free throw line.

"Maybe they did hold us maybe we self-checked ourselves, maybe a combination of both. They lead the world, I think, in free throws taken in a game. We played them down there and I think they were 30 and are 29 now or something, which is unbelievable. I think it shows their aggressive approach with multiple ball handlers and why they do a good job of that. So we got to do a good job ourselves in getting there and I think they did do a good job holding us. I think we did a good job holding us and the combination was catastrophic not to get to the line the second half."

While Appling is highly unlikely to struggle like that again, the Spartans are likely going to be without his main backup, Travis Trice. A head injury has sidelined the sophomore here recently.

"It's wake up one morning and the headaches are gone and you get to play, I guess. It's a frustrating thing for me, for our doctors, for our fans and probably most for him," said Izzo. "Until we can get him back it makes it harder on us in a lot of reasons, trust me on that."

Trice should be back soon, just maybe not tonight.

"(He) practiced 10 minutes last night, just lay-ups and that. There will be more tests today. I feel bad but I'm almost tired of talking about it because I have no answers for you," said Izzo. "But it is what it is and it will be what it'll be and we're going to have to find a way to win a game without him."

The good news for Michigan State is improved play from freshman combo guard Denzel Valentine. He's averaged 7.6 points and 2.4 assists over the last five games.

"I think Denzel can handle some things, but it's a lot harder to handle things when you have two jet-quick, smaller point guards," said Izzo. "Everybody talks about what Trice would do offensively; I think Trice would help us defensively in some of those things."

Another freshman stepping up for the Spartants since that first Indiana game is 6-foot-9 Matt Costello. Once recruited by Indiana, the Bay City native didn't even see the court in the first meeting. But over the last three games he's averaged double figures in minutes and averaged about five points and three boards in that time.

"The guy has a heart about this big (hands far apart), he's got incredible intelligence and he's tough as nails. And those are good qualities to have for a guy who's trying to get better," said Izzo. "What I think is gonna surprise people is he really shoots the ball pretty well, too. So his future here, in my estimation, is gonna be extremely bright. And that's one of the things. We get to talk about everybody else's freshmen. My three freshmen have done a pretty damn good job and are getting better every day. And that could bode well for us down the stretch."
All this adds up to a Spartan team that is a heck of a lot better than anybody anticipated coming into the season and a legitimate Final Four and national title contender.

"I didn't foresee all of this coming, I'm not gonna lie to you. I've said it all along that in some ways, this team has exceeded (expectations) but some of it is because I didn't know what the roster would be yet, I didn't know some of the things I still think he's a ways away from where he needs to be," said Izzo.

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