Game of the Week: Michigan State at Indiana

February 16th, 2008

Game of the Week: No. 10 Michigan State at No. 13 Indiana (Saturday, 9:00 PM, ESPN)

When two of the best teams in the Big Ten face-off, it is guaranteed to be one of the better games of the weekend. In this case, Michigan State and Indiana are both coming off of losses, but are still right in the thick of the conference title race. However, Saturday night’s game will be more than just a battle for conference supremacy. In the light of all the recent happenings at Indiana involving Kelvin Sampson, it will be interesting to see if it could potentially be a distraction to the Hoosiers. Rumors swirling around regarding Sampson’s coaching future at IU will certainly not help a young team in need of a marquee win. It should be an outstanding match-up.

Michigan State Team Breakdown

Michigan State came into the season as the co-Big Ten favorite – along with Indiana – and a potential Final Four sleeper. However, the Spartans have been somewhat inconsistent this season, beating the likes of Texas, BYU and Purdue, but also losing to teams such as Iowa and Penn State. They have struggled scoring the ball on occasion, averaging just 57.3 points per game in their four losses. MSU is ranked No. 38 in offensive efficiency and No. 23 in defensive efficiency.

The Spartans have a deep and balanced team, but the key is play of the perimeter. Senior Drew Neitzel developed into a go-to-guy last season, but has taken a step back this season as other players have become consistent offensive options. He is still a great leader who can knock down clutch shots late in the game. He takes tremendous care of the ball, and can also distribute. Freshman Kalin Lucas and junior Travis Walton can both play the point, although Lucas is much more of an aggressive scorer, while Walton is a defensive stopper. Lucas is very quick and can create plays for himself and his teammates; Walton takes care of the ball and is a very good passer. Durrell Summers and Chris Allen both see less than 13 minutes per game, but they are fifth and six on the team in scoring, respectively. Summers is an outstanding shooter.

Up front, sophomore Raymar Morgan has become one of the better all-around players in the Big Ten. He can score in a variety of ways, as he has the ability to post-up smaller players down low or hit the mid-range jumper and drive past slower defenders. He is very difficult to defend. Goran Suton is an underrated inside performer. He is an efficient finisher inside and is one of the best rebounders in the conference. Suton is also a good passer with decent vision for a big man. Marquise Gray is an athletic forward who can rebound very well and bang down low, while Drew Naymick is a solid shot-blocker and rebounder who is extremely efficient inside.

Indiana Team Breakdown

Indiana was one of the candidates to win the Big Ten heading into the season, and it sure looked like that projection was going to be correct when the Hoosiers jumped out to a 17-1 record, including six straight wins in the Big Ten. Since then, though, IU is just 3-3, getting swept by Wisconsin and losing at home to Connecticut. Their best win on the season is at Ohio State – not exactly a marquee victory. The Hoosiers are ranked No. 20 in offensive efficiency and No. 22 at the other end of the floor.

The Hoosiers have one of the best inside-outside combos in the country in freshman guard Eric Gordon and senior big man D.J. White. Gordon has proved himself to be one of the best guards in the country, regardless of classification. He can score in a variety of ways, driving to the basket or shooting from three. He has unlimited range and is not afraid to take – and make – the big shot. White has become a premier big man, arguably the best in the Big Ten and one of the best in America. He is a double-double lock every night out, and can dominate the post against anyone. He is a tremendous defender and rebounder who is extremely efficient when finishing.

Indiana is very deep on the perimeter, with two double-figure scorers in addition to Gordon. Armon Bassett is one of the top three-point shooters in the conference, and has increased his production lately. He has the ability to play both guard positions. Jordan Crawford is a crafty freshman guard that can do nearly everything on the court. He tends to make mistakes at times and has been unbelievable inconsistent lately. Jamarcus Ellis is a junior wing that is one of the best rebounders in the Big Ten despite his 6-foot-5 stature. He is athletic and can distribute the ball well. Forward Lance Stemler is an inside-outside scoring threat who is usually good for a clutch three every game, while DeAndre Thomas and Mike White can bang down low.

Game Analysis and Prediction

Despite the poor play this week by each team, expect this to be one of the best games of the Big Ten season. Both teams have plenty of talent and can score from both inside and out with different options. Both teams like playing in the half-court, although Indiana has the athletes and scorers to get points in transition. Defensively, neither team forces many turnovers but they both play stingy half-court defense – indicative of the Big Ten as a whole. This game also holds more importance than one would expect in terms of the Big Ten standings. A loss here for Michigan State, and the Spartans could drop to fifth in the conference if Ohio State wins. That would not bode well for their seeding in the NCAA Tournament. Indiana has lost whatever momentum it built due to its hot start, and needs to pick-up a victory to get back on the right track.

If Michigan State is going to catapult itself back into the Big Ten race with a win on the road, it needs to play much better than it has in its last two contests away from home. In order to get the win, it will first need to start knocking down three-pointers. The Spartans didn’t hit a single long-range shot in their loss at Purdue on Tuesday and are shooting below 35 percent from beyond the arc on the season. The interesting thing is that MSU has players that can stroke the jumper consistently. Drew Neitzel has range, Kalin Lucas and Chris Allen are decent, and Durrell Summers is a terrific jump-shooter. Indiana is susceptible to the three-point shot, and the Spartans need to take advantage of that. Secondly, they will have to get consistent inside-outside production. Neitzel has been inconsistent in big games, while Goran Suton has been a non-factor at times. Lucas is not ready to be a go-to-guy, and Raymar Morgan can’t be the only scorer. Against a team like Indiana, Michigan State is going to need to get production from a variety of options. It would help if Neitzel reverted to his ways from last year, as well. Lastly, the Spartans have to slow down either Eric Gordon or D.J. White. It is obviously impossible to shut both of them down, but allowing both to have huge games would spell doom for MSU. They can’t allow Gordon to get hot from deep or White to dominate down low.

On the other side, Indiana has the home-court advantage but the off-court distractions. That will be the most important thing: focusing on the game and not on what is going on with the pending NCAA investigation and upcoming decision regarding Kelvin Sampson’s future with the team. The Hoosiers are still relatively young and inexperienced, and you never know if their minds might be elsewhere heading into the game. However, I think they’ll be okay – will Sampson? That’s the question. Defensively, Indiana needs to keep the Michigan State players out of the lane. Indiana starts four perimeter players for the most part and can’t allow Lucas, Neitzel, etc. to get into the lane and create for their teammates. The Spartans don’t shoot the three well, so IU has to force them to hit their perimeter shots. Pack it in or zone them; both could be successful. They also have to be sure to limit the Spartans’ second chances. White is really the only starting post player that Indiana has, and Michigan State is one of the best offensive rebounding teams in the country. It’s imperative that Indiana cleans up MSU’s missed shots. Offensively, the secondary options for the Hoosiers will have to step-up and get points. Defensive stopper Travis Walton will be defending Gordon, which could be tough, while MSU has plenty of big guys to throw at White. Players like Armon Bassett and Jordan Crawford could be key.

The game is going to come down to who can get clutch baskets down the stretch; Michigan State is more experienced and has the personnel to slow down Indiana’s main offensive options late in the game. Despite the Spartans’ recent struggles on the road, I think they will get the win because of their offensive versatility and the off-court distractions for Indiana.

Prediction: Michigan State 66, Indiana 63