EAST LANSING - At the start of the 2012-13 college basketball season, Indiana was not only looked by many as a lock to win the Big Ten title but also as an eventual Final Four team.
It was expected that while the Hoosiers would receive some stiff tests from a few teams in a conference that has turned into the strongest in the nation this season, that IU would be able to impose its will on its opponents because it had all of the key ingredients and components that make up a conference champion.
But six games into the Big Ten season, seven for Michigan State, the No. 7/8 Hoosiers (17-2, 5-1 Big Ten) will be facing a No. 13/11-ranked Spartan team (17-3, 6-1) that sits atop the standings when the two teams square off for the first of two meetings this season at 1 p.m. Sunday (CBS) at Assembly Hall in Bloomington, Ind.
"I said all along that they were, them and Michigan, maybe a head above of the rest of us right now but we get a chance to go see how that works out on their home court,'' Izzo said. "So, I don't feel pressure, I feel excitement because I think we're making some progress.''
Izzo got that feeling after the Spartans came away with a hard-earned 49-47 win on Tuesday at Wisconsin.
And while there will be no shortage of interesting storylines accompanying this showdown for both teams - Indiana head coach Tom Crean spent four years (1995-99) in East Lansing as an assistant under MSU coach Tom Izzo, while Spartans' Branden Dawson, Russell Byrd and Gary Harris are Indiana natives returning to their home state for the first time this season - Izzo wants this game to be just another building block in what he sees as a chance to continue the growth and maturity of a team that features just one senior starter in center Derrick Nix, and has started two freshmen in Harris and Denzel Valentine.
"I don't perceive us as the elite of the elite yet and why would national people,'' Izzo said trying to downplay the early importance of Sunday's contest in the Big Ten race. "Yea, it's a big chance on a national stage to take another step forward but as I said, and I'm going to caution everybody, especially my guys, there's no one game right now ( that's going to decide the conference title). There's still too many games left.''
Second-year assistant Dane Fife also starred for Indiana from 1998-2002 in what presents itself as another obvious storyline of interest but once again, in a schedule that could see MSU face ranked teams in at least five games in its remaining 10 regular season matchups, placing too much emphasis on one game is not a wise approach.
Newly-minted junior captain Keith Appling, who enters Sunday's contest with a team-leading career average of 11.3 points, 4.7 assists and four rebounds a game versus Indiana, heads the Spartans' attack at 14.1 points, 4.3 assists, 3.5 rebounds and 1.7 steals a game.
Harris, who celebrated his first-ever meeting against a team from his home state when he posted a career-high 22 points in MSU's 84-61 win over Purdue back on Jan. 5th, is second on the team with at 12.3 points a game, while Dawson is the third Spartan who averages double figures at 10.5 points a game.
The Hoosiers, whose only setbacks have come in a neutral site overtime loss to Butler and a home loss to Wisconsin, feature a nucleus of four starters who average 10 or more points a game, led by 7-foot sophomore center Cody Zeller, a big man who runs the floor as well as any forward in the country.
Zeller averages 16.4 points and 8.2 rebounds a games, while junior guard Victor Oladipo, who may have the best wing player skills in the country at 6-5 because he is just as effective on defense as he is on offense, adds 13.5 points and 5.9 rebounds.
Oladipo leads the Big Ten in field-goal percentage (.660) and steals (2.3 spg).
"Oladipo is one of the toughest matchups because he plays so many positions and he plays so hard,'' Izzo said. "I don't think there's a guy in college basketball that plays harder than Oladipo. The challenge is going to be figuring out which guy does what but for the most part, Oladipo is a tough matchup for any team.''
Senior forward Christain Watford, an excellent 3-point shooting forward at 6-9 and senior guard Jordan Hulls, the Hoosiers other top 3-point threat, at 12.7 and 11.2 points per game, respectively.
The senior duo has combined to hit 74-of-152 3-pointers this season for an Indiana team that is shooting 42 percent from beyond the arc, and getting excellent play from freshman guard Yogi Ferrel, who is averaging 7.1 points a game and a team-leading 4.6 assists.
And when you couple all of those numbers with the fact that IU is the only team in the nation to rank in the Top 10 in field goal percentage (.500, 6th) and field goal percentage defense (.369, 7th), it's going to be a tall order for MSU, which trails the all-time series, 65-48, to knock the Hoosiers off at home, a place where MSU is just 12-43 all-time.
Despite those odds, MSU has found recent success against Indiana, winning six of the last seven meetings, seven of the last nine and 10 of the last 15.
Izzo is 18-11 against Indiana, while Crean is just 1-6 against his mentor.
In a game that is expected to be close until the final buzzer, if you're looking for an edge for either team, consider this: Indiana leads the nation in free throws made (393) and free throws attempted (538). So if the Spartans are to have any chance for a victory in one of the toughest, if not the toughest place to play in the Big Ten - last season, MSU lost to Indiana in Bloomington, 70-55 - they are going to have to keep the Hoosiers off the free throw line.
"I think that, turnovers and transition defense are going to be the biggest parts of the game,'' Izzo said. "They're very, very good in transition. And fouling. They go to the line about 28 times a game and you can't defend that. We've just got to make sure we play our (style of) ball without giving up too much in those areas.''
MSU is also going to have to get stellar defense out of its posts in defending Zeller, a national player of the year candidate.
While Nix and junior forward Adreian Payne are each averaging nine points and nearly seven rebounds a game, they may be better served concentrating on making sure Zeller doesn't have an All-American outing. That will also include some help from Dawson.
"They're a great team in transition,'' Dawson said. "Cody Zeller is one of the best big men in transition. They get out and they run. And also keeping them off the boards on the offensive end. We have to contain those guys, especially Oladipo. He's one of the greatest offensive rebounders in college basketball right now.''
Nix streamlined MSU's formula for success even further.
"We can't let them get their crowd in it, we can't let them score in transition and we've got to hit that glass and rebound,'' Nix said.
Despite the fact that Izzo wanted to downplay the attention and excitement attached to the matchup, he couldn't help but show a little added enthusiasm when asked about the strategies that would be employed in an effort to gain an added edge.
It doesn't get any bigger than this. It will be a big CBS game (against a Top 5 team on the road, so it doesn't get any better than this and I think we're in a pretty good frame of mind. It is a chess match and that's what it comes down too. I've got some faith in those bigs right now. All three of them are doing a pretty good job.''
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