A significant part about drawing up a defensive game plan is finding an opponent’s weaknesses. Figuring out which players you can leave for the purpose of a double-team or to help on drives in the paint. Which players you can give a cushion to on the perimeter or which you can get up into without fear of being blown by.
The problem with No. 4 Michigan State, Indiana coach Tom Crean said, is that the Spartans don’t have those weak points, at least not in the starting lineup.
“They’re one of the best teams in the country, because they’re very, very good at everything,” Crean said. “There’s nothing you can really look at with them and say, ‘We can play off this, we can not worry about that.’ That’s why they’re so good. There’s no place to catch a breath with them.”
The Hoosiers managed to escape the first matchup with the Spartans with a 75-70 win in Bloomington, the Hoosiers’ biggest victory at that point to date. The Spartans haven’t lost since, however, and with the Hoosiers holding on to the No. 1 ranking, Tuesday’s 7 p.m. game between the two teams at the Breslin Center in East Lansing will be the first matchup between two top five teams at the arena. More importantly, the two teams are tied atop the Big Ten with 11-2 conference records, meaning the winner will be alone in first place in the conference.
By crushing Michigan — which was the No. 1 team in the nation when it went to Bloomington just two weeks ago – in East Lansing last week, the Spartans proved they belong in the discussion of the conference front runners. Even in their loss to Indiana, they proved to be the most difficult personnel matchup for the Hoosiers. They have big wings in freshman Gary Harris and sophomore Branden Dawson and a huge frontline with center-sized big men Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix who can make life brutal for Cody Zeller.
Add to that a point guard in Keith Appling who is leading the team with over 14 points per game, and you have a lineup without any holes.
“There’s no where that you go in that game and say, ‘OK, they can’t make baskets,’” Crean said. “We’ve gotta be able to adjust inside of the game like we did there. We have to feel great about our plan and at the same time have a Plan B and C. That’s what we do, because they’re really good. I think the bottom line is we can’t be surprised when Payne is standing out at the 3-point line and a legitimate threat to make it. Gary Harris shot the ball well and he’s been shooting it well against everybody all year, but really since that game. I really think they’re maturing.”
The first time the Hoosiers played the Spartans, they had to go unconventional in many respects, and it worked to their favor, They played more than a third of their possessions in zone and doubled down in the post a lot. Michigan State was able to score off the double teams a lot but the zone kept them on their heels enough for Indiana to take control. Of course, it also helped that junior guard Victor Oladipo was at his most dominant and disruptive, recording 21 points, seven rebounds, six steals and three blocks.
The Hoosiers hope they can count on that sort of performance, even though Oladipo is coming off a sprained ankle in Saturday’s game against Purdue. The All-America candidate practiced Sunday and Monday and Crean said he expects he will be OK to play Tuesday.
“He’s better,” Crean said. “He was good today. We didn’t push anything to an extreme level. But he was good. He’s excited. I think it’s past the point that it’s really hurting, and I don’t think he’s gonna tell anybody anyways.”
That should give Oladipo another opportunity to prove Michigan State’s Nix wrong. Nix suggested in a press conference last week that he and his teammates weren’t getting their deserved attention. He said that there’s nothing IU’s Cody Zeller can do that Adreian Payne can’t do and nothing Oladipo can do that Branden Dawson can’t do.
Crean was asked if his players were aware of Nix’s comments and if he had directed the Hoosiers to them.
“I don’t have to show any of that,” Crean said. “Those kids, they’re all on Twitter and Facebook and they read. There are no secrets there. We’re spending our time on getting ready for a really good team. If I didn’t have a mature team … they don’t need any more of an edge to go into this game. They know who they are. They’re starting to realize what we’re capable of. They know the pageantry of it. Most of them have been up there. They know the environment, and they’re extremely locked in. I’m sure they’re all aware of that, I know they are, but that doesn’t have anything to do with the drive they have for this game, because that would be short-lived.”