Injuries can be the great equalizer in sports, turning a race that looks to be all but over into a contested sprint to the finish line. Michigan State can attest to that, with point guard Kalin Lucas (ankle) going down against Wisconsin and being unable to play at Illinois in a second consecutive loss on Saturday night. Tuesday's matchup is in East Lansing but none easier, especially if Lucas is unable to go.
Michigan State takes on Madison and the Grateful Red on Tuesday night, and with a win the Spartans take another step towards their goal of winning the Big Ten title. Winners of ten straight, Tom Izzo's team has gotten the job done thanks to four players averaging in at least ten points per game. Point guard Kalin Lucas has played better basketball since being benched earlier in the season due to leadership issues, and forwards Raymar Morgan and Draymond Green have been essential pieces to the puzzle as has Durrell Summers.
The Mountain West schedule makers hit the nail on the head with their opening week slate, scheduling games between the four teams expected to compete for the regular season title. On Tuesday San Diego State defended their home floor with a win over New Mexico but it remains to be seen how long Billy White (high ankle sprain) is out of the lineup. Wednesday's showdown will be in Provo, with UNLV visiting BYU in a game that should be an entertaining one. The Rebels have depth and will need to use their defense in order to beat one of the best scoring teams in the nation.
The second-to-last day of college basketball before Christmas brings a loaded schedule of games: ninety-one to be exact, a number you rarely see reached outside of Saturdays. The biggest matchup nationally: Michigan State taking on Texas in Austin. The Longhorns' 103-90 win over North Carolina showed one important thing to future opponents: if you aren't physically strong inside you're in for a long day. That's due to the presence of center Dexter Pittman, who's in the best shape of his collegiate career and has an improved skill set as a result.
Tuesday night's national title game rematch was billed as the headliner of the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, with the experienced Spartans heading to Chapel Hill with revenge on their minds. But as Mick Jagger noted, "you can't always get what you want", and the young Tar Heels grabbed control of the game early with their offensive execution. Larry Drew II, who has played good basketball recently, ran the offense with speed and consistency in the first stanza and Dexter Strickland ended the half with a three-pointer as time expired.
The ACC/Big Ten Challenge, which the ACC has never lost, takes center stage for the next two days with Michigan State visiting North Carolina in the event's showcase game. The Tar Heels won both meetings last season by double-digit margins, at Ford Field in December and right back on that same floor for the national title in April. But many of the faces in Carolina blue have changed and the young Heels will be tested by a seasoned group of Spartans. The individual matchup to watch: North Carolina's Larry Drew going up against the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year in Kalin Lucas.
Tuesday was a day for sleep deprivation as it marked ESPN's 24-hour college basketball marathon. Unfortunately for the network the early hours served up a trio of yawners with Saint Peter's, Niagara and Clemson all pulling off comfortable victories. But the games involving Kansas and Michigan State didn't disappoint with the top two teams being tested by Memphis and Gonzaga respectively. It's good to see that there are teams willing to challenge themselves so early in the season, giving themselves the opportunity to evaluate themselves against credible competition.
With six teams in CHN's preseason Top 25, and 3 more teams with NCAA Tournament hopes, no league has more depth than the Big Ten. And an improving Indiana into the mix, and this should be quite a season for Big Ten fans.