The toughest portion of Indiana's schedule will soon be over. Before the Hoosiers have a slight respite, however, they must take on surging Michigan State Saturday (and a moderately improved Rutgers team on a quick turnaround Monday).
Six days ago, Indiana took on another highly ranked opponent at Assembly Hall (Purdue, for those of you who have tried to block that game out) and played arguably its best game of the season before taking its foot off the gas in the last few minutes. With three days of rest between the Ohio State game and the matchup with Michigan State, the Hoosiers should be ready for a full 40 minutes against the Spartans.
They'll have to be ready, because Michigan State likes to push the ball up the floor. Sophomore big man Nick Ward is Wes Unseld-like with his outlet passes, and fellow sophomore Cassius Winston has gotten more aggressive attacking in transition. The point guard had eight assists the last time these teams met.
The Spartans administered an 85-57 drubbing in that game, but since then have looked like less than an elite group.
The No. 5 team in the country fell behind by 13 points at halftime against Maryland before storming back to win 74-68 on the road. More recently, Michigan State trailed by 12 in the second half at home against Penn State before rallying for a fifth straight win. The Spartans turned the ball over 16 times in that game and scored just 24 points in the first half.
Meanwhile, Indiana will have a key piece that it was missing the first time it played the Spartans.
Juwan Morgan sat out the second half in that game with an ankle injury, but has averaged 23 points per game in the four games since. The Hoosiers especially missed him on defense, where Morgan had guarded Ward in the post through most of the first half.
Ward presents many of the same problems as Isaac Haas of Purdue, in that he's not only a capable post scorer, but also a strong passer when teams pay too much attention to him alone. Morgan will often be asked on Saturday to guard Ward by himself, a tall order, but one that Morgan is the best-qualified to handle of anyone in the Hoosiers' frontcourt.
All of this is to say that Saturday's game will not be a repeat of the blowout in East Lansing. Several signs point to the Hoosiers keeping this game close and having a chance to win. Whether they are able to close the deal and deliver a signature Big Ten win for Archie Miller's first season at the helm won't be decided until the final minutes.
What I'm watching for: Defensive rotations. The Hoosiers may decide that guarding Ward one-on-one in the post is too much for even Morgan to handle. If so, they may send a second defender, as they occasionally did against Purdue's Haas. In that game, Archie Miller acknowledged that some of his team's rotations after the double-team could have been better. There were at least one or two times where two IU defenders ran at the same Purdue shooter, leaving another Boilermaker wide open. Michigan State isn't as good-shooting a team as Purdue, but it hit 50 percent of its triples against the Hoosiers in East Lansing. I'm looking for whether those rotations have been tuned-up in preparation for this game. They could be the key to slowing the Spartans in the half court.
Prediction: Michigan State 70, Indiana 62