For much of the 2012-13 men’s college basketball season, the talking heads of the media have debated which team, IU or Michigan, would come out on top in arguably the best conference in the country.
Yet as No. 1 IU travels to East Lansing, Mich., tonight for the team’s second meeting against Michigan State, it is the Spartans who have unseated the Wolverines as the team with the best shot to challenge the Hoosiers for the No. 1 seed in the Big Ten Tournament.
On Monday the Hoosiers (23-3, 11-2 Big Ten) continued their reign atop the college basketball polls, but the Spartans have jumped up eight spots over the past two weeks to sit as the No. 4 team in the nation. They have also jumped into a tie for first place in the Big Ten at 11-2 in conference play.
When the teams first faced off Jan. 27 at Assembly Hall, a 75-70 victory for IU, the
Spartans held the No. 13 ranking while the Hoosiers had dropped to their lowest spot this season at No. 7.
Since then, both teams have endured the rigors of the Big Ten conference season and continued to improve.
IU Coach Tom Crean said he’s taken notice.
“I thought they were really good when we played them, and I think they’re really good now,” Crean said. Since the Spartans’ loss to IU last month, they’ve become the hottest team in the conference. MSU has won five straight games, including a 23-point rout of Michigan in East Lansing a week ago.
The Hoosiers also took down Michigan within the confines of Assembly Hall earlier this month, and they registered their only road victory against a ranked opponent this season — a convincing 81-68 win against then-No. 10 Ohio State.
Senior guard Jordan Hulls said wins against ranked opponents, especially on the road, give the Hoosiers some good experience coming into the Breslin Center. Yet with Michigan State playing as hot as anyone in the conference, IU has to focus in on today’s game and put aside the rankings and past games this season, he said.
“Each team is different,” Hulls said. “Different matchups, different players, obviously. It definitely helps that we have done that before, but like I said, it’s a different mindset, different type of game.
“We’ve got to be able to go up there and execute the way we know we can.”
Sophomore forward Cody Zeller said the stiff competition in the Big Ten this season has prepared IU for a game of this magnitude.
“It is a big game because both of us are atop the Big Ten, but every game is a big game in this league because there’s hardly any room for error,” Zeller said. “You can’t have any time to relax.”
And if taking over the driver’s seat in the conference race wasn’t enough, the Hoosiers got some more motivational material late last week.
Spartan Derek Nix said he felt Michigan State and his teammates weren’t receiving the respect they deserve from NCAA media and NBA analysts.
Nix specifically called out junior guard Victor Oladipo and Zeller. He said that Michigan State’s Branden Dawson and Adreian Payne, respectively, are every bit as good as the two National Player of the Year candidates, who routinely make appearances in the top 15 of mock NBA draft boards.
Crean noted that with a road conference game and sole possession of first place in the Big Ten on the line, his players don’t need anything more to get fired up to play in the Breslin Center tonight. Nix, on the other hand, may have to live up to his words against a fired up Hoosier squad.
“They don’t need any more of an edge going into this game,” Crean said. “They know who they are. They’re starting to realize what they’re capable of. They know the pageantry of it — most of them have been up there. They know the environment, and they’re extremely locked in.”