Holding Serve at Home Won't Be Easy Against Michigan State

Tom Brew

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Just because it's been next to impossible to win road games in the Big Ten the first month of the conference season doesn't mean that trend is going to last forever. 

In fact, it's starting to turn already, for a variety of reasons, and that could be bad news for Indiana, which hosts Michigan State on Thursday night. The Spartans are the best team in the league at 6-1, and they will be ready for the 8:30 p.m. ET tilt. (TV: FoxSports1)

The element of surprise is gone, and the Hoosiers can thank the Purdue Boilermakers, their bitter in-state rivals, for that.

The last time Michigan State ventured out on the road, it got blasted by Purdue 71-42. The 29-point defeat was the worst in the long and glorious career of Spartans coach Tom Izzo. So you know they will be dialed in on this road trip. 

"I know it's a tough environment, but I can't wait, really,'' Michigan State freshman Julius Marble said. "It's tough to play on the road in the Big Ten and Purdue is one of the toughest places. You expected them to play their best game against us, and they did.

"It's definitely a big game (at Indiana), because we took that loss personally. It really hurt, to be honest with you. I didn't want to be that part of history.''

Indiana, 14-4 overall and 4-3 in the Big Ten, has been very good at home so far in the Big Ten, winning against Nebraska, Northwestern and Ohio State, which was ranked No. 11 at the time. Michigan State, 14-4 overall, is currently ranked No. 11 in the Associated Press poll (They are No. 9 in the Coaches poll). 

They will be a huge challenge, of course, but Indiana has a four-game winning streak going against ranked teams at Simon Skojdt Assembly Hall. 

The biggest challenge comes from senior point guard Cassius Winston, who just might be the best player in the Big Ten. He wasn't good in that loss to Purdue, turning the ball over nine times against the Boilermakers.

"He probably won't turn in over nine times in our next five games,'' Izzo said after that loss. 

He was exaggerating — Winston had five more turnovers in the Spartans' 67-55 win over Wisconsin last Friday — but he's definitely a tough cover. The ball is always in his hands, which is why he's now the Big Ten's all-time assists leader.

"It's going to take five people to guard him with the ball screens that they run,'' Indiana guard Devonte Green said Wednesday. "He's real ball dominant, he has the ball in his hands a lot. Everybody is going to be locked in."

It does help the the Hoosiers are finally fully healthy at the guard spot, because all four of them — Green, Rob Phinisee, Al Durham and Armaan Franklin, will probably be nose-to-nose with Winston at some point in the game.

"Coming back from injuries definitely help our team,'' Green said. "It gives us more depth at the guard spot."

Winston is averaging 18.1 points per game and 6.1 assists, and he's the key component of a long and deep Michigan State team that plays a lot of guys and can play a lot of different ways. Nine Spartans play 12 minutes or more.

Still, it starts and finishes with controlling Winston. "He's their motor, he's how they go, he's the head of the snake,'' Durham said.

Indiana beat Michigan State's Final Four team twice last year, which was something of a shock considering how much the Hoosiers struggled (8-12) during the the Big Ten season. They struggled to keep Winston under control. He had 20 points and 11 assists in the 63-62 loss in Bloomington in early March and had 26 points and 8 assists in the loss at East Lansing. season.  

Now that teams are more comfortable going on the road, that element of surprise is starting to wait. Road teams were 7-42 to start the league season, but Maryland and Illinois both won on the road Tuesday night. 

The Spartans, with all their veterans, won't be shocked by the Assembly Hall noise. They also would love to avenge those two losses, so there's no doubt Indiana will get their best shot.

Indiana will have to guard well and continue to be efficient on offense, which is something it's done better lately, coach Archie Miller said.