IU men’s basketball head coach Archie Miller said he sees No. 11 Michigan State as the heavyweight champs.
The Spartans sit alone on top of the Big Ten standings and are the highest-ranked team in the conference. Michigan State was the preseason No. 1 team in the country and has consistently been one of the top teams in the Big Ten under head coach Tom Izzo.
IU comes into the home matchup Thursday night with momentum after defeating Nebraska in its first true road win of the season. There's been a lot of parity among conference opponents, but Miller called Michigan State the most consistent team so far in the Big Ten.
“If you can’t come off the mat a few times, they are going to run you down,” Miller said.
Last season, IU swept Michigan State to pick up a pair of top-10 wins. Both games came down to the wire, but IU was able to hold on.
Then-sophomore forward Justin Smith led the Hoosiers in game two with 24 points and three made 3-pointers. Despite the scoring from Smith, it was then-freshman guard Rob Phinisee who put the game away. Phinisee defended Michigan State's then-junior guard Cassius Winston in the final seconds. He forced Winston to take a difficult, fading jumper that hit off the rim.
Phinisee has been back in the starting lineup for the past three games for IU and could be tasked with defending Winston once again.
“I think we are really going to have to get back,” Miller said. “We are going to have to rebound, and we are really going to have to deal with Cassius Winston in this game, in terms of being not able to allow him to just pick us apart."
IU's defense has improved with Phinisee in its lineup. The Hoosiers have held three of their last five opponents to shoot less than 40% from the field. Defensive play has been key to keep IU in games when the offense has been in a slump.
On defense, IU will also have to worry about Michigan State junior forward Xavier Tillman and sophomore guard Aaron Henry. In Michigan State’s loss at Purdue, Tillman and Henry combined for 11 points.
In the six Big Ten victories, Michigan State failed to score less than 70 points once but still held Wisconsin to 55 points. The offensive attack has been consistently strong for Michigan State, but Miller said he believes his team’s defense has improved.
"We went from a bad defensive team in November, to an average defensive team in December, to now as January has grown, pretty good,” Miller said.
This will also be the only time the Hoosiers will face the Spartans in the regular season. A win could go a long way by the time March comes around.
If IU wants to continue climbing the Big Ten rankings and find some separation from the middle of the conference, it’ll begin with Michigan State.
“It doesn’t have anything to do with X’s and O’s, it has everything to do with when you come into the right, are you ready to go?” Miller said. “Because they’re going to throw some serious haymakers and some body blows at you.”
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