GAME PREVIEW - In the ever-changing story of "Every Game is Pivotal in the Big Ten This Season'' Michigan State's second meeting with Indiana may turn out to be the most important of them all.
With more than just a handful of important storylines and implications surrounding No. 4/5 MSU's 7 p.m. contest (ESPN) with the No. 1 Hoosiers Tuesday at Breslin Center, the most important and most apparent will be that the winner will take over sole possession of first place in the Big Ten.
And in a game the first-ever meeting between two Top 5 teams at Breslin, the Spartans (22-4, 11-2 Big Ten) will also be trying to avenge a 75-70 loss to IU (23-3, 11-2) back on Jan. 27 in Bloomington, Ind.
"(This) is what it's all about. That's why we came here, to compete for Big Ten championships and potential number one seeds in the (NCAA) tournament,'' said junior guard Keith Appling, MSU's leading scorer and passer at 14.1 points and four assists a game. "I definitely embrace it and I think that's one of the things that will help us play harder.
"You could say that (that them being No. 1 adds extra motivation), but at the same time they did beat us and I feel like that's a double motivation. (We're) trying to get a game back and we'll come out and play as hard as we can for 40 minutes. This place should be rocking and we're gonna be ready to go. Simple as that.''
In that first game, freshman guard, Indiana native and Big Ten Freshman of the Year candidate Gary Harris led all scorers by posting his third 20-plus performance of the season when he scored 21 in a loss that saw then-No. 13 MSU ranked fall for the sixth time in its last seven visits to Assembly Hall to an Indiana team that was ranked No. 7 at the time.
Harris a three-time Big Ten Freshman of the Week, winner who leads all Big Ten freshman in scoring, is MSU second-leading point producer at 12.9 points a game.
While Harris has continued to improve, a lot has changed since then for both teams.
The Hoosiers, who have not won at Breslin since 1991, have returned to the top spot in the country after winning five of their last six game since beating MSU. Meanwhile, the Spartans have crept up from the teens in the Top 25 rankings by winning all five of their games since their setback at Indiana.
"I thought they were really good when we played them and I think they're really good now,'' Indiana coach and former MSU assistant Tom Crean said. "There's no question that they're one of the best teams in the country because they have so much. They're very good in everything. There's nothing you can really look at them with and say we can play off this and we cannot worry about that. There's no place to catch a breath with them."
Indiana leads the all-time series 67-48 but MSU, which is 15-0 at home this season, has captured six of the last eight meetings and seven of the last 10 showdowns.
While there will be many factors that determine the outcome of a game that could lead to an eventual No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament for the winner, the most important factor may come from the health of players on both teams.
While MSU sophomore guard Travis Trice is expected to miss his fifth game with concussion-like symptoms - further depleting MSU's backcourt depth and pushing the play of freshman guard Denzel Valentine off the bench to the forefront of importance - the Hoosiers could be looking at a physically-limited guard of their own in 6-foot-5 do-it-all junior Victor Oladipo, who rolled an ankle against Purdue on Saturday.
While all indications point to Oladipo, an All-American candidate playing in Tuesday's game, no one will know how effective the junior - who finished with a pivotal 21 points, seven rebounds, six steals and three blocks in the first meeting - will be during the course of Tuesday's game.
MSU coach Tom Izzo is treating the situation as though Oladipo will be at 100 percent.
"Oladipo to me, (and) I know some players in this league are better offensive players than him and there might be better defensive players than him, but I don't think there's a better combination than him,'' Izzo said. "He's leading their team in field goal percentage and he's leading it in steals and that kind of tells you the bottom line about Victor Oladipo. He's got the highest motor I've seen in years, he's got the ability to guard one through four and he's improved his jump shot so much. Even his 3-point shot, and he's better at putting the ball on the floor.''
And when you consider that Oladipo's quickness and athleticism was one of the main reasons Appling finished with just three points and fouled out of that first game, you can understand why Appling may have circled this game on his calendar in brightly-colored Sharpie.
"I've been looking forward to it a lot,'' Appling said. "Last time we played at their place I was unable to participate in the game so my teammates did a good job of picking me up. Now we get a second crack at them and we're just gonna see how it goes.
"I don't plan on getting a couple early fouls. Last time it got us in trouble and I just don't want it to ever happen again, so I took a lot from that. I learned from it.''
Even if Oladipo is not 100 percent, the Hoosiers, as if to prove they have enough depth to cover for his absence in that Purdue game, got a game-high 22 points off the bench from reserve junior forward Will Sheehey.
Meaning Indiana has more than enough firepower to take up the slack entering Tuesday night to help All-American sophomore forward Cody Zeller, who at 7-foot, may be the best running big man in college basketball, and leads the Hoosiers in scoring and rebounding at 16.6 points and 8.2 rebounds.
Zeller leads a quartet of double figure scorers followed by Oladipo's 13.8 points a game, and seniors Christian Watford and Jody Hulls, who add 13.2 and 10.7 points, respectively.
Watford, at 6-9, presents opponents of IU with another difficult matchup because while it is natural for him to perform in the post, he is the Hoosiers second-best spot-up 3-point shooter.
"Cody Zeller is playing much better than the first time we played them, Watford is shooting the ball really well from the 3 (point line) and Oladipo is just Oladipo; he's a high energy guy and we just got to come out and play," junior forward Adreian Payne said.
And while most of the stats between these two teams are near even, the one thing that Indiana does markedly better than MSU is score the basketball.
Indiana enters Tuesday's showdown averaging 82.9 points a game overall, 76.5 in the Big Ten, while the Spartans post 70 points a contest overall, 69.3 in conference play.
"I think they are a little better offensively (and) I guess maybe I'd say we could be a little better defensively. I think the one thing we have that is starting to bode well for us is our one and two men right now I think are the best defensive guard tandem in the league,'' Izzo said. There are some good defensive guards but I think with Gary and Keith we have the best starting 1-2 men defensively in the league. But (Indiana), they are a little better offensively in some ways and yet I like the fact our two bigs, the inside-outside - you saw it at Nebraska we, took advantage of some things there.''
That means that once again, a game of this magnitude will be determined by how well the Spartan's play defense.
Entering Tuesday, MSU was surrendering 62.2 points a contest in Big Ten play and if MSU wants to reduce the Hoosiers' gaudy Big Ten plus-13.7 scoring margin, Appling will have to play better than he did on defense in the first game against Indiana's freshman point guard Yogi Ferrel who enters the game averaging just 7.3 points but a team-leading 4.3 assists a game.
"He brings a lot of energy to their team. Pushes the ball each and every time he gets it and he makes some things happen,'' Appling said. "I'm just gonna have to be solid for 40 minutes and try not to pick up any cheap ones. I just gotta try not to use my hands as much and stay in front of the guys (because) that's where I get called for a lot of fouls, when I try to hand check.''
Assisting Appling in MSU's attention to detail on defense will be sophomore wing Branden Dawson, who is third on the team in scoring at 10.6 points a game and 6.2 rebounds, senior forward Derrick Nix and Payne, who had a great outing in MSU's first meeting with Indiana with an 18-point, nine-rebound effort.
Payne enters Tuesday night as the team's leading rebounder with seven a game, while averaging 9.5 points a game, while Nix adds 9.5 points a game and 6.5 boards a contest.
We can't have as many defensive breakdowns,'' Appling said. "Last time we broke down a couple times defensively and they got a couple wide open threes. We can't let that happen this time around and we should be fine.''
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