The Vegas lines on Indiana’s game against Michigan State opened with the No. 7 Hoosiers favored by 10.5. It was a surprising line, considering Michigan State is ranked No. 13 and tied for the Big Ten lead at 6-1. It’s one of those lines that makes you wonder whether Vegas knows something you don’t.
It’s a line that would be an even bigger surprise to IU coach Tom Crean, because after reading the Michigan newspapers and seeing more upbeat quotes than usual from his friend Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, he was wondering what Izzo knows that he doesn’t.
“The most nerve-wracking thing about this game is how excited it seems that Michigan State is,” Crean said. “I’m used to the Tom Izzo that’s gloom and doom. The sky is falling and is only happy when he’s miserable. Reading some of the comments coming out of Michigan today, those guys are really excited to play. That’s nerve-wracking, when he’s really looking forward to a game and says his team’s in a great frame of mind. We’re going to have to really play well.”
Crean did know that last part already. The Spartans have won six straight games since a conference season-opening loss at Minnesota, claiming wins over Ohio State and Wisconsin in their last two. They have lots of weapons that will make for very difficult matchups for Indiana.
Junior point guard Keith Appling is the Spartans’ leading scorer, averaging 14.1 points while also leading the squad with 4.3 assists and also averaging 1.7 steals per game.
“He’s the guy that beat us a year ago in East Lansing,” Crean said. “He’s tremendous. He’s the kind of guy, you don’t guard him for 32 of the 40 or 33 of the 40, you guard him for 40 of the 40, because he can turn it on at any point in time. He’s got some great strengths. He’s excellent in transition. He wants to get to the foul line or to the rim for his pull-up jumper, or getting to the basket. He’s getting 30 percent of his points in the league off the free throw line, so he’s getting fouled. He’s delivering the ball, he’s getting to the rim, he’s just creating a lot of havoc for the opponent, and he’s a very good defender. I think it’s just a matter of maturing as a player. He’s been at it now, this is his third go-around of being a mainstay in the Big Ten.”
On the wings, the Spartans have two players from Indiana who Crean knows well from the recruiting trail. He went after small forward Branden Dawson, a graduate of Lew Wallace High School in Gary, and he went after shooting guard Gary Harris of Hamilton Southeastern even harder. Dawson is averaging 10.5 points and 6.6 rebounds and Harris is averaging 12.3 points, making him the second leading scorer among Big Ten freshmen to Michigan’s Nik Stauskas.
“Gary Harris is playing like a true veteran and playing extremely well,” Crean said. “Making his foul shots, shooting an excellent percentage from the 3. Playing a lot of minutes. He seems to have an excellent understanding of it. Dawson appears to be very healthy and can just be a dominating factor on the boards.”
And then, of course, there’s Michigan State’s massive front line. Big men Adreian Payne (6-10, 240) and Derrick Nix (6-9, 270) both have true center size, and they’re rebounding like it. Nix is averaging 9.1 points and 6.9 rebounds per game and Payne is right behind him with 9.0 points and 6.8 rebounds.
“I think it causes issues,” Crean said of dealing with two big men that large on the court at the same time. “I don’t think there’s any question it causes issues, and they know it does. You look at some of the quotes in the paper today, they’re really looking for how people match up with them. I’m not sure it’s a conventional matchup game for us. I’m really not. The whole game, you can’t let that team be comfortable. You can’t let them just come down and say, ‘Ok, we’re gonna run this play, we’re gonna run that play. We’re gonna get this on the break and we’re gonna get that on the break. That’s when they’re at their best. We just can’t let them do that.’”
What Crean means when he says it’s “not a conventional matchup game,” is that the Hoosiers will likely have to switch up defenses, and mess with matchups. That likely means the Hoosiers will be using a fair amount of zone, which makes sense on a number of levels. Most notably, it will be difficult for seniors Jordan Hulls and Christian Watford to get beneficial matchups in a man-to-man defense. The Hoosiers would have to use Hulls on either Harris or Dawson — meaning he’d be giving up either four inches or six in height and significantly more in wingspan — and that Watford will have to body up on either Nix or Payne. Those two players will almost assuredly be put in positions like that at some point, but the Hoosiers will certainly want to limit their exposure.
“There will be a lot of different mixture of defenses,” Crean said. “You can’t look at this team and say, ‘well this is a great matchup and we’ll run with this the entire time.’ I don’t think that’s where we’re at our best. The bottom line for us with the way that we sometimes mix defenses and mix matchups, is to make sure everybody is aware, not only of the guy that’s guarding him, but making sure everybody else is aware of what he wants to do. I think we did a better job of that a year ago, and we’ve got to make sure we do a great job of that tomorrow.”
It’s a difficult matchup, and it’s always difficult for Crean to coach against Izzo, his long time friend and mentor. However, he also has some perspective on that in the week of the Harbaugh Bowl.
“I look at it two different ways,” Crean said. “I don’t enjoy going against somebody that I have that much of a friendship with and that much history with, but I do enjoy going against great coaches and getting your team ready to play against a team that’s so good. You have to have a strategy for everything with him because you know that he does. You know that they do. No, in a perfect world, you really wouldn’t play your closest friends. But I’ve got two brother-in-laws that are getting ready to play each other too, and that’s a pretty good world, but it is what it is. I totally look at it from the point of view that we’d better be on top of our game in every area, because he always has his team on top of their game.”
Random topic — Free throw shooting
Off the preview track, asked Crean how he feels about his squad as a free throw shooting team, because the stats provide him information he could take in a number of different ways. For the season, Indiana leads the Big Ten in shooting percentage, making 73.0 percent of their shots. Heading into Saturday’s action, the Hoosiers had made 60 free throws more than the next highest team and attempted 54 more than the next highest team. Of course, they’d also missed more free throws (145) than every team but Minnesota.
So even though in some regard he has nothing to complain about, Crean said he wants better performances on the line.
“I think there’s times we get undisciplined with our technique,” Crean said. “That’s what it is. To me, that’s really all it is. It seems like it’s contagious, and sometimes it is. Jordan’s a great example. Move on. You missed it, move on. Move on mentally. Get into the next shot. He beats himself up so much. Mental toughness is a short memory. Tim Corbin, from Vanderbilt, the baseball coach, said that. It’s one of the best lines I’ve ever heard about mental toughness. That’s real time stuff. You’ve gotta be able to that in a hurry for a guy like Jordan who doesn’t really have technique issues. Sometimes we’ve gotten undisciplined and lazy in our technique. That’s what it’s been, and that’s what we work to correct. We spend as much time, long after practices is over with the free throw shooting as we have all year. Sometimes it seems like we’re out there a long time because we’re spending that much more time with the free throws. But we’re also spending more time with the free throws competitively. Yesterday we did that, and we probably shot 90 percent. Right there. In the heat of competition. It’s just technique. It’s reminders. It’s technique. The technique brings the confidence. Not the other way around. Your technique brings your confidence. Not the other way around. your technique brings your confidence. Especially when you’re shooting the ball. I’d be way more concerned, and I know I’ve said this in the past, but it bares repeating, I’d be way more concerned if we weren’t getting the attempts. And we are. I’d be way more concerned if guys weren’t getting to the line that need to get to the line for us. But they are. It needs to continue.”