BLOOMINGTON – For the second weekend in a row, Indiana has a national stage to showcase its recent improvement in front of a raucous crowd at Assembly Hall. Little more than a week after stifling then-No. 18 Wisconsin 63-45 in Bloomington, the Hoosiers take on Michigan State, currently tied for second in the Big Ten, in a matchup this afternoon which will be televised on CBS and played in front of a capacity crowd.
Indiana is 9-1 at home this season, with the lone loss coming by a single point against Northwestern. Against the Wildcats, the Hoosiers didn't have enough energy at the outset and fell behind too far before making a furious comeback in the final minutes. In every other home game against a major opponent this season, however, the Hoosiers have drawn energy from the home crowd and out-worked their opponent, especially on the defensive end. They'll have a chance to do the same this afternoon against the Spartans, who have won eight of their last 10 games and are coming off a 70-57 win over fellow Big Ten title contender Rutgers on Thursday. After holding Wisconsin and Illinois to below 40% shooting in back-to-back games, Indiana will have to put together another excellent defensive effort to slow down a Spartans team which went 12 for 22 from 3-point range against the Scarlet Knights, with four players making a trio of 3s apiece.
After giving up 18 3-pointers against Penn State on Jan. 11, the Hoosiers have re-committed themselves to pressuring the perimeter and making opposing guards put the ball on the floor rather than getting off an open look from beyond the arc. Illinois and Wisconsin made a total of 13 shots from deep against the Hoosiers, though there were still occasions in both games in which the Hoosiers did not contest long jumpers quite as well as they should have. But the effort and passion on defense is there in a way it was not for a couple of weeks as the Hoosiers lost six of nine and three straight. Indiana will need to bring that passion against a Michigan State team which is 35th nationally in 3-point shooting at 37.8% as a team.
Little more than an hour before tipoff, the Hoosiers released some significant news: sixth-year senior forward Race Thompson is dressed and will participate in pregame warmups with an eye toward determining whether he will be able to play today. Thompson has been out since suffering a knee injury Jan. 5 against Iowa – he was 4 for 4 from the field for nine points in 10 minutes in that game and left with the Hoosiers ahead 35-15 in a game which they eventually lost 91-89 – and when he appeared on crutches in the second half in Iowa City it appeared he might be out for much of the rest of the season. Instead, he has appeared to progress more quickly than many expected and is at least nearing a return, it seems.
Of course, even if Thompson can play today, it's unclear how much he'd be able to give the Hoosiers. Jordan Geronimo has stepped into the lineup in Thompson's place and played two solid games in a row (12.5 points, 9.5 rebounds and two blocks per contest over the Hoosiers' last two wins) after really struggling against Northwestern in his first career start (zero points, 10 minutes, three fouls). The 6-foot-6 junior will likely take on the responsibility of guarding 6-9 stretch 4 Joey Hauser, who is shooting close to 40% from 3-point range, this afternoon. Obviously, having Thompson would help the Hoosiers against Hauser, but Geronimo might be better equipped to chase the Spartan big around the perimeter. Still, having Thompson even close to being available is a hugely important development for the rest of the season.
On offense, Indiana is coming off a game in which Trayce Jackson-Davis dominated the proceedings for 40 minutes. The 2019 Indiana Mr. Basketball poured in 35 points on 15-for-19 shooting, in large part because Illinois refused to send a second defender at him in the post. Despite Jackson-Davis's big night against that defense Thursday, Michigan State is likely to employ much the same strategy. Last weekend, the Spartans hosted Purdue and they rarely double-teamed 7-4 Boilermakers center Zach Edey, preferring to let their 6-9 forward Mady Sissoko bang with him in the post all afternoon. Sissoko is extremely strong and held his own against Edey relatively well, forcing him to miss some shots he usually makes, but Edey scored 32 points and grabbed 17 rebounds despite a relatively inefficient shooting performance. Though Michigan State lost that game 64-63, its strategy of essentially "Let the big man get his" would have worked had Purdue guard Fletcher Loyer not taken over down the stretch and scored nine straight points to keep his team in it. Michigan State will likely employ a similar tactic this afternoon, letting Jackson-Davis go one on one with Sissoko in the post most of the day, hoping Sissoko can force him into a few misses and then daring another Hoosier to beat the Spartans. Can Jalen Hood-Schifino match Loyer's production? That will be one of the keys to this game.
After a 1-4 start to Big Ten play, Indiana has saved its season with back-to-back victories over two of the conference's better teams. Now, the Hoosiers have a chance to make it three in a row and get back to .500 in conference play, with winnable games against reeling Ohio State and last-place Minnesota looming next week. Win today and take both of those and suddenly the Hoosiers are right back in the upper echelon of the conference standings. First things first, however: bringing energy against the Spartans and getting off to a good start on another national stage.