Based on the way that this year’s schedule has played put, the Big Ten Game of the Century has become a weekly occurrence.
First, it was Indiana hosting Michigan State. Then, it was Indiana hosting Michigan. Then Michigan visited East Lansing. And on Tuesday night, No. 1 Indiana will make their return visit to East Lansing, as the No. 4 Spartans look to exact revenge for a nail-biting loss back in January while taking over sole possession of first-place in the Big Ten.
The latter part of that sentence is what makes this battle so important. With just five games left in the Big Ten schedule, Michigan State and Indiana are currently tied for first place in league play with a two-game lead on both Michigan and Wisconsin. And while that’s anything but an insurmountable lead at this point — MSU still has to visit Michigan and Ohio State while hosting Wisconsin, while IU is on the road at Minnesota and Michigan with a return visit from the Buckeyes coming up — it certainly puts them in the driver’s seat with the finish line fast approaching.
So who wins tonight?
Well, much of that will depend on the health of the players in the back court. MSU’s backup point guard Travis Trice is still battling concussion symptoms and has missed the past four games. Gary Harris has a bum shoulder and a back that won’t stop spasming. Victor Oladipo left Saturday’s game against Purdue with a sprained ankle. Both Oladipo and Harris are expected to play.
But if Oladipo’s ankle is bothering him, it could create some problems on the defensive end of the floor. Will be be as effective defensively? Will it cut into his quickness or his explosiveness? As much as Oladipo as developed his all-around game, the main reason’s he’s so effective is that he’s an unbelievable athlete and on-ball defender.
Keith Appling spent much of the first game in foul trouble, logging just 19 minutes and turning the ball over four times without an assist before fouling out with just three points. The reason that the Spartans were able to keep things close, besides Harris playing arguably his best game of the season, was that their front court manhandled IU’s. Adreian Payne finished with 18 points and nine boards. Branden Dawson had 12 points, eight boards and four steals. Derrick Nix had eight points, grabbed four offensive rebounds and handed out six assists from his spot on the block. Combined, they held Cody Zeller to just nine points and seven boards.
Zeller’s been playing much more aggressive basketball of late, although the same can be said of Appling, which means that two teams that we have projected as No. 1 seeds in the tournament are squaring off tonight as they are peaking in late-February.
Is it 7:00 p.m. ET yet?
Oh, and it gets better.
We still have two more Games of the Century. At least. Both Michigan State (on March 2nd) and Indiana (on March 10th, the final day of the regular season) still have to pay a visit to Ann Arbor this season.
And that doesn’t even account for the Big Ten tournament, where two of those three should end up meeting in the semifinals.
It’s too bad this sport is so irrevocably broken.
You can find Rob on twitter @RobDauster.