Big Ten Battle Pits #5 Michigan State Against #18 Indiana

The 5th-ranked Michigan State Spartans (24-5, 13-3 Big Ten) head into the first of two tough games to close out the 2011-12 NCAA Basketball season, matching up tonight with the #18 Indiana Hoosiers (22-7, 9-7 Big Ten) at 7:00 PM ET at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Indiana.

Though Michigan State has already secured a share of the Big Ten Title this season by virtue of their two game lead over Ohio State, knowing the MSU program and the competitiveness of head coach Tom Izzo, there’s plenty still left to play for in tonight’s game against a tough Hoosiers’ team that will be looking for another quality win at home against a highly-ranked opponent ahead of the NCAA Tournament bracket selection. The Spartans game plan this season has revolved whole-heartedly around suffocating defense, with MSU allowing just 57.8 points/game on the year, and down the home stretch where they’ve now won 9 of their last 10 games, Michigan State is playing even better defense allowing just 52.3 points per contest in those 10 outings. What’s even better for MSU fans is the fact that 3 wins during their stretch of 7 straight victories have come against ranked teams (Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan), all in their conference. With a second win on the season against Indiana, and their 7th straight overall, Michigan State will be in good position to grab a coveted #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, setting themselves up for another potentially historic run for the NCAA Championship.

For Indiana head coach and former Tom Izzo assistant Tom Crean, tonight’s match-up on home court is a golden opportunity for the apprentice to finally conquer his mentor, provided the fast-paced, high scoring Hoosiers can find a way to break through a stingy MSU defense. In order for that to happen the Hoosiers are going to have to find a way to be successful shooting the ball while getting contributions from their entire roster. Most notable from the last meeting between these two teams was the lack of presence from Indiana’s leading scorer Cody Zeller (15.4 points/game, 6.5 rebounds/game), who produced just 4 points and 3 rebounds due to persistent foul trouble, and Indiana found themselves unable to contend in an 80-65 rout on the road. This is again an area where the game can be won or lost for the Hoosiers, as without the big freshman’s contributions under the basket against a very physical Michigan State group, Indiana will be forced to fire away from 3-pt range, leaving the games’ outcome decided by their ability or inability to knock down clutch shots. While fellow IU forward Christian Watford (11.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg) certainly tried to pick up the slack for Zeller’s absence against MSU last time out (26 points, 10 rebounds), it’s evident that for tonight’s game to be close, both Watford and Zeller are going to have to stay clear of foul trouble, and have great efforts against the likes of the Spartans’ Draymond Green (15.6 ppg, 10.3 rpg), who is one of the nation’s most physical, talented and experienced big men, despite only occupying a 6’7″ frame. Michigan State is tops in the Big Ten on the offensive boards, excels at winning second chance opportunities, and dominates games with their points in the paint (34/game). Therefore, Indiana’s big men must step up tonight both on offense and on defense in order to give themselves a legitimate shot at winning at home tonight.

Michigan State’s offense may not blow the competition out of the water with their 72.5 points/game average, however their consistency of play across the board is what makes them a true contender this year heading into the NCAA tournament. The Spartans are big on the glass, ranking 19th in the NCAA in rebounds (39.1/game), 22nd in assists (15.7), and shoot the ball well at %47.6 from the floor (25th in the NCAA). While just two players on their roster shoot in double figures (the aforementioned Green, and Keith Appling, 11.7 ppg), and just 5 players are above 7.0 points/game, their ability to get big performances from their two biggest scorers night after night is what is driving MSU down the home stretch. For instance, in the last game against Indiana, the Spartans shot lights out at home with 54.7 percent from the floor, but it was the big effort by Keith Appling, who scored 25 points, 7 assists and 6 rebounds, that truly put the game out of reach. Rather than hedge on getting a lot of scorers active in the game, Michigan State constantly pushes the ball to the most favorable match-ups on the court, which are frequently those facing Appling and Green. While there’s veteran support for the Spartans’ top players by way of junior center Derrick Nix (7.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg) and senior guard Brandon Wood (8.2 ppg, 2.9 rpg), the Spartans need to have both Green and Appling score big tonight against an Indiana team that will be trying to push the ball at home, and could be in for a much better shooting night which could give them an advantage.

Where Michigan State relies on their defense and their two biggest scorers to determine basketball games, Indiana lives and dies by its ability to score on every possession. Indiana shoots at a fantastic %49 from the floor (7th in the NCAA), and puts up 77.6 points/game, but when they struggle to consistently score each time down the court, they can be exposed especially against good defenses. A very interesting note picked out by ESPN for this game; In games in which Indiana is held below 1 point per possession, they are 0-5. That means that in games where they are better than a point per possession, they are 22-2. The first team to hold them under that 1 point/possession mark this year? Michigan State. That seems to point to the fact that Indiana needs to be selective with its shots around the perimeter even despite the fact that they shoot at an impressive %42.6 beyond the arc, and also work to push the ball inside to higher-percentage looks as much as they can. While Draymond Green will certainly be an imposing figure for Zeller, Watford and Victor Oladipo (11.2 pgg, 5.4 rpg) down low, Indiana has to push the ball into the paint, be physical and try to draw fouls, and draw the defense inside to free up shooters around the perimeters. Without forcing Michigan State to collapse into the paint, there’s going to be too much defensive pressure applied around the perimeter for Indiana, lowering their chances of getting off good looking shots from outside.

Betting Lines for #5 Michigan State at #18 Indiana at TopBet Sportsbook

With two very different styles of team play clashing tonight, it will be interesting to see if Indiana can get Michigan State to play their type of basketball, much like the Spartans did to the Hoosiers in the last battle between these two teams back on December 28th. For that to happen, Indiana has to push the ball down the court, and keep Michigan State from setting up on defense. The bookmakers at TopBet Sportsbook certainly have Indiana pegged to put down a much better effort tonight at home, with the Hoosiers getting +125 odds as a slight underdog on home court. Michigan State marches into Assembly Hall carrying strong recent form, thus it’s not a surprise that the Spartans get the favorite in this match-up even on the road, with -145 odds on the money line.

Against the spread, this game stays tight with a slight favorite going to Michigan State with -2.5 points at -110 odds. Indiana gets 2.5 points to play with, with the same -110 odds tonight.

Where the game gets interesting on the betting lines is the over/under, which sits at 138.5 points. With the last meeting accumulating 145 points at Michigan State, and with Indiana not able to break out their scoring attack in that game, a better showing for the Hoosiers at home could once again see the over bet be the best pick for the contest tonight. That said, if Michigan State repeats its repressive defensive performance against Indiana, and controls the tempo of the game on the road, a low-scoring game will unfold giving the under total points pickers the best option.

Our Pick to Win:

Indiana has been outstanding at home this season, especially against top-ranked teams. Looking to become one of only 4 teams in the past 10 years to defeat 3 top-5 teams in the same season, and also holding a 16-1 record on home court this year, this game should be Indiana’s to win or lose. That said, one thing outside of the actual on-court game still has me leaning towards Michigan State tonight; The mentor is still better than the student. Tom Izzo will draw up a game plan that works to keep Indiana shooters outside, frustrate the younger Hoosiers in the paint, and slow down the game to make each possession that much more important. If Indiana coach Tom Crean can find a way to keep his players working on fast breaks, avoid costly turnovers, and keep the shooting focused on high-percentage shots, Indiana could very well walk out with a win. However, with Michigan State’s defense playing at its best on the season down the home stretch, I don’t see Indiana being able to score like they want, and that in turn will be the difference in the game. Look for the older, more experienced team, with the more experienced head coach to complete the season sweep of the Hoosiers on the road, with Michigan State winning at Assembly Hall to secure the outright Big Ten title by a score of 70-66.

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