WEST LAFAYETTE – The best team in the Big Ten invades Mackey Arena today. Some would quibble with giving Michigan State that distinction just a quarter of the way through the Big Ten schedule, especially with Maryland playing well, too. However, the Spartans are the only remaining team unbeaten in league play and two of their three losses this season have come to Duke and Kentucky. They're the class of the league until further notice.
Of course, that was the case last year, as well, when the then-No. 6 Spartans came to West Lafayette to take on an unranked Purdue team and the Boilermakers raced out to an 18-point halftime lead and won 73-63, nearly bringing the roof down at Mackey. This year the atmosphere might not be quite as raucous because the students aren't back in town yet (classes don't start until Monday), but the arena should still be packed to the gills and the home team has had a decided advantage in the Big Ten this season. Michigan State's only road matchup so far in Big Ten play has been at Northwestern. No disrespect to the Wildcats, but playing at Mackey is a different animal.
The Spartans come in as one of the hottest teams in the country, winners of eight in a row, including a 87-69 victory over then-No. 12 Michigan last week. They are led by the reigning Big Ten Player of the Year in senior guard Cassius Winston, who is playing some of the best basketball of his illustrious career. Winston has scored 20 points in five straight games and is averaging 29.5 in his last two. Last year against the Boilermakers at Mackey he poured in 23, dished eight assists and grabbed seven rebounds. Purdue struggled to guard Michigan's Zavier Simpson late in its loss to the Wolverines on Thursday and Winston is a similar type of a player, able to get to the paint at will and score creatively around the rim.
Purdue will likely have one advantage in stopping Winston that it did not have against Simpson: Matt Haarms patrolling the lane. The 7-foot-3 Haarms suffered a hip injury in the first half against the Wolverines and that kept him off the floor in the second half and the two overtime periods. After two days of essentially living in the trainers' room, Haarms professed himself "good to go" for today's game, even though he might not be quite 100%. Having him out there just to protect the rim and rebound will be extremely helpful for the Boilermakers.
Haarms will have to be particularly effective on the boards, because Michigan State excels there. Led by forward Xavier Tillman, who averages 10.2 boards per game, the Spartans rank second in the country in average rebound margin at plus-11 and have outrebounded every team during their eight-game winning streak. The Boilermakers will likely go with their two-center lineup with Haarms and Trevion Williams on the floor at the same time to try to counter Michigan State's aggression on the glass.
On Saturday, Matt Painter called the Spartans the "gold standard" in the Big Ten, the team that everyone's chasing. This year's Michigan State is as well-rounded as any in recent memory, ranking among the nation's leaders in scoring, assists, rebounding and opponent field goal percentage. The Boilermakers are looking to snap a two-game losing streak and pick up a huge win for their NCAA Tournament resume over the team they shared the Big Ten title with last season. With a noon tipoff and a national broadcast, it should be intense for 40 minutes.