Michigan State, Indiana ready to face off again in Big Ten showdown
In what could be a record crowd at the Jack Breslin Center, finding the person who is most excited for Michigan State's showdown with Indiana is easier than you think.
Don't bother scanning the crowd because it's not one of the screaming Spartans fans. And although Magic Johnson is back at his alma mater, his role as announcer will force him to keep his emotions in check.
Now it's down to the players and the coaches, and a quick glance to the Michigan State sideline will provide an answer that nobody should be surprised by.
"This team is excited, but it's not bouncing off the walls, which probably is good because I'm bouncing off the walls," Izzo said.
Tuesday's showdown is the type of game that Izzo lives for, and why shouldn't he? It's the top two teams in the Big Ten facing off. It's No. 1 vs. No. 4. It's teacher vs. pupil. It's Indiana vs. Michigan State.
"I would be willing to bet this could be the greatest crowd ever for this place," Izzo said. "This is one of those reasons where I'm glad I'm in college, and I'm glad I'm here."
When these two teams first met in Bloomington on Jan. 27, it was a dogfight from start to finish. In a game that saw no team lead by more than nine points, Indiana held Michigan State scoreless over the final 3:33 to escape with a 75-70 victory.
That game, like in many others this season, Victor Oladipo stole the show, tallying 21 points, seven rebounds and six steals.
But in that loss to Indiana, Michigan State didn't walk away empty-handed. The team emerged more confident.
"We knew we could beat any team in the nation after we played Indiana," said Spartans forward Matt Costello.
The difference between saying that and doing that is a stark one though, and another loss to the Hoosiers on Tuesday will likely temper any title talk in East Lansing.
Although Indiana has five players averaging at least 10 points per game, stopping Oladipo, who is nursing ankle injury, might be the key.
"There are some better offensive players than him, and there might even be a better defensive player than him, but I don't think there's a better combination than him," Izzo said.
If the Spartans are a legitimate title contender, we'll know in two weeks. The game against the Hoosiers kicks off a tough four-game stretch for the Spartans --including dates at Ohio State, Michigan and Wisconsin -- that looks more like an NCAA tournament run than a conference schedule.
"This is a gauntlet," Izzo said. "You're never going to get a break because you're playing all those teams."
Michigan State hits that stretch playing its best basketball. The Spartans are headed for their 16th straight NCAA tournament appearance under Izzo and sit tied with Indiana atop the Big Ten standings with an 11-2 conference record. And after sitting somewhere between No. 10 and No. 25 for most of the season in the polls, a dominating 75-52 home win over Michigan on Feb. 12 propelled the Spartans up the rankings. After that game, Izzo said it was the best his team has played in three years.
"We played as well as we could play," Izzo said. "Now the fistfight will be keeping them at that level."
A lot of things needed to click this season for Michigan State, and they all have. Brandon Dawson has stayed healthy, Keith Appling has become a leader, Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne have matured and freshman Gary Harris hasn't needed much time to adjust.
Those who know the program well aren't shocked to see the success.
"It hasn't surprised me at all," said former Spartan Mateen Cleaves. "I watched them in the summer time. You could just see a different mentality."
And now the fourth-highest ranked Big Ten team to start the season is the now fourth best in the country.
"Every time they turn the TV on, they're hearing about a lot of these other schools," Cleaves said. "I'm not saying they are going out to play for that, but this team wants to win a national championship."