Sunday's Big Ten matchup will be for top spot in conference
Perhaps the best sign of the Big Ten’s depth this season is the revolving door of teams as the flavor of the week.
Indiana started the season as the preseason No. 1. Then, Illinois won the Maui Invitational and started 12-0. After that, Minnesota teased us with a 15-1 start, culminating in a rout of Illinois on the road. And all the while Michigan has spent most of the season knocking on the door of the No. 1 spot in the polls.
Now, Michigan State has a turn. Tom Izzo's Spartans lead the Big Ten at 6-1, one win ahead of Indiana and two ahead of Michigan. Every other Big Ten team has at least two conference losses.
One of these teams can take a sense of control in the Big Ten on Sunday. Indiana is looking for a more complete showing than what the Hoosiers have displayed in recent weeks. After the loss to Wisconsin at Assembly Hall, Indiana had fits in the second half with Northwestern. On Thursday, the Hoosiers defeated Penn State soundly, but Cody Zeller had his worst game of the year.
Meanwhile, Michigan State has show a knack for winning the close games. The Spartans may have lucked out against Ohio State thanks to an ill-advised final shot from Buckeyes guard Shannon Scott, but Michigan State came back to grind through a 49-47 win at Wisconsin.
GAME OF THE WEEK
Michigan State at Indiana
When: Sunday, 1 p.m.
Where: Assembly Hall, Bloomington, Ind.
Michigan State probable starters
G Keith Appling (6-1/190, Jr.)
G Gary Harris (6-4/205, Fr.)
G Branden Dawson (6-6/230, So.)
C Derrick Nix (6-9/270, Sr.)
C Adreian Payne (6-10/240, Jr.)
Indiana probable starters
G Yogi Ferrell (6-0/178, Fr.)
G Jordan Hulls (6-0/182, Sr.)
G Victor Oladipo (6-5/214, Jr.)
F Christian Watford (6-9/232, Sr.)
C Cody Zeller (7-0/240, So.)
Game-defining matchup: Adreian Payne vs Cody Zeller
Zeller is coming off his worst game of the season, in which he went 0 for 4 from the field in 21 minutes against Penn State. The Indiana center should bounce back, but he’ll run into a tough matchup against Payne. The Spartans big man has had a breakout season and watched his own four-game hot streak come to an end the last time out against Wisconsin. If he can run the floor with Zeller and cause problems around the basket, Michigan State will be in good shape.
Player we’re watching: Keith Appling
The Spartans’ point guard hit a handful of key shots on the way to 19 points in the ugly 49-47 win over Wisconsin on Tuesday. After struggling for a bit, he’s had a good two-game stretch in close games against the Badgers and Ohio State. He’s 12 of 30 from the field in the last two games.
Stat that matters: Indiana’s free throw opportunities
The Hoosiers’ 73-percent rate from the free throw line isn’t among the top 50 in the country, but Indiana gets its fair share of points from the line. Part of that is because the tempo Indiana likes to run, but also because of the pressure the Hoosiers put on the defense. Indiana is fouled on 30.2 percent of possessions, a rate that leads the Big Ten. Not surprisingly, nearly a quarter of the Hoosiers’ scoring (24.7 percent) comes from the line, a stat that also leads the league.
How Michigan State can win: Slow the game down
Wisconsin frustrated Indiana by slowing the pace in the Hoosiers’ 64-59 loss on Jan. 15. Michigan State is much more adept at playing the grinding, low-scoring game than Indiana -- the Spartans defeated Wisconsin 49-47 and Ohio State 59-56 in the last week. Limiting the nation’s top-scoring team in transition will be a key to victory.
How Indiana can win: Win the backcourt matchup
Freshman point guard Yogi Ferrell is coming off his best game of the season (it was against Penn State, so don’t get too excited). Will Sheehey appears to have broken out of a slump. And Victor Oladipo has played well against Michigan State in the past. Those are good trends for Indiana against Michigan State, especially if Indiana can limit production from Appling and Branden Dawson, who combined for 37 of the Spartans’ 49 points against Wisconsin.
Prediction: Indiana 80, Michigan State 75
Related: NCAA Tournament projections and bubble watch
WEEKEND ON TAP
All times Eastern
Louisville at Georgetown (Saturday, noon, ESPN)
Georgetown was sharp offensively in a surprisingly easy win at Notre Dame on Monday night, but the Hoyas have had trouble scoring with consistency for much of the season. Louisville is one of the nation’s elite defensive teams — easy baskets will be tough to come by for Otto Porter and the rest of JT3’s club, even at home.
Maryland at Duke (Saturday, 1 p.m., CBS)
Poor shooting (39.4 percent) has doomed Maryland through the first three weeks of the ACC season, and Duke is coming off a 4-of-23 performance from the three-point line in the lopsided loss to Miami. The Blue Devils are 2-4 the last two seasons without Ryan Kelly in the lineup.
Kansas State at Iowa State (Saturday, 1:30 p.m., Big 12 syndication)
Iowa State took Kansas to overtime on Jan. 9 and won three in a row thereafter. But then the Cyclones delivered a puzzling loss to Texas Tech on Wednesday. Meanwhile, Kansas State, despite a loss to Kansas, should remain in the Big 12 race all season because the Wildcats defend very well and get after it on the glass.
Minnesota at Wisconsin (Saturday, 2 p.m., Big Ten Network)
The Golden Gophers are on a three-game losing streak after getting beat up on the glass in a surprising loss to Northwestern. Now, the Gophers visit Madison, where Minnesota won only once in its last 15 games. With back-to-back losses to Iowa and Michigan State after the upset of Indiana, Wisconsin also needs a win to keep itself afloat in the Big Ten.
Oklahoma at Kansas (Saturday, 4 p.m., ESPN)
We’re not ready to call Oklahoma a legitimate contender in the Big 12, but the Sooners are 4–1 in the league after Monday’s win over Texas. Lon Kruger clearly has this program on the right path. Kansas features one of the nation’s top freshmen in guard Ben McLemore and an elite shot-blocker in center Jeff Withey. This is a very tough task for the Sooners.
New Mexico at San Diego State (Saturday, 4 p.m., NBC Sports Network)
San Diego State shot a combined 43-of-126 (34.1 percent) overall and 5-of-37 from three (13.5 percent) in recent losses to UNLV at home and at Wyoming. That, obviously, has to improve. New Mexico is the only team without a loss in Mountain West play while every other MWC team has two or more league losses.
Temple at Butler (Saturday, 6 p.m., ESPN2)
Without Rotnei Clarke, Butler has had two thrilling finishes against Gonzaga (a win) and La Salle (a loss). Clarke is hopeful to return against the Owls after a frightening neck injury on Jan. 12. Temple guard Khaliff Wyatt is averaging 24.8 points in his last four games.
North Carolina at NC State (Saturday, 7 p.m., ESPN)
After an 0–2 start in the ACC, North Carolina won at Florida State, blew out Maryland at home and handle Georgia Tech on the road. UNC still struggles to shoot the ball from the 3-point line and doesn’t get to the foul line enough, but the Heels are good enough to be a threat in the ACC. Since defeating Duke, NC State has lost two of its last three, including a defense-optional loss to Wake Forest.
Florida State at Miami (Sunday, 6 p.m., ESPNU)
This is one of the biggest weeks in years for Miami basketball. The Hurricanes are the only unbeaten team (5–0) in the ACC after the rout of Duke. Rival Florida State is searching for answers on the offensive end of the floor after scoring only 36 points in a 20-point loss at Virginia last weekend.
Michigan at Illinois (Sunday, 6 p.m., Big Ten Network)
Illinois won its first 12 games under new coach John Groce, but the Fighting Illini went 3–5 over their next seven games. Illinois is far too reliant on the 3-point shot to enjoy sustained success throughout the entire season. Michigan is more balanced on offense, but the Wolverines still don’t do a great job of getting to the foul line. Only 15.8 percent of their scoring comes from the line, which ranks 333rd in the nation.
Athlon Sports managing editor Mitch Light contributed to this report.