After last season, you figured maybe Michigan State would take a step back in the Big Ten. The Spartans lost the heart and soul of their team in Draymond Green, a guy who tortured Big Ten teams and fans for four years.
But here come the Spartans, sitting atop the conference rankings with a 6-1 league record and a No. 13 ranking as they prepare to enter Assembly Hall for Sunday afternoon’s showdown with No. 7 Indiana. On paper, it’s the same old competitive Michigan State team.
“I’m used to the Tom Izzo that’s gloom and doom and ‘the sky is falling’ and he’s only happy when he’s miserable,” Indiana coach Tom Crean said Saturday. “And reading some of the comments coming out of Michigan, those guys are really excited to play. That’s nerve-wracking.”
Green is gone, but almost everyone else is back, including explosive point guard Keith Appling. The 6-foot-1 Appling nearly single-handedly beat the Hoosiers (17-2, 5-1) in the teams’ first meeting a year ago in East Lansing, going for a season-high 25 points, seven assists and six rebounds.
In his only career game at Assembly Hall, though, Appling scored only six points on 2-of-6 shooting.
“He’s the guy who beat us a year ago,” Crean said. “He’s tremendous. He can turn it on at any point in time. He’s excellent in transition, he wants to get to the foul line for his pull-up jumper. He’s delivering the ball, he’s getting to the rim, he’s just creating a lot of havoc.”
Added senior guard Jordan Hulls: “Lot better shooter. He’s added that to his game and he’s very explosive in transition, just getting to the rim or pulling up. We know we have to try and contain him.”
The problem for Indiana is, Appling is not the Spartans’ only weapon. Not even close. He’s joined in the backcourt by Indiana native and 2012 Indiana Mr. Basketball, Gary Harris, who is averaging 12.3 points per game in his freshman campaign. He’s also shooting nearly 39 percent from 3-point range.
“He’s very athletic, likes to get to the rim,” Hulls said. “We just have to do a good job of keeping him outside and not letting him get penetration. He’s a very capable 3-point shooter and he can play different areas on the floor. You just have to be aware of him.”
The backcourt matchup should be interesting considering the Hoosiers usually start Hulls and Yogi Ferrell, two guys right around 6-foot. Either Appling or Harris is going to be a difficult matchup for Hulls, so whoever he guards could dictate who Michigan State (17-3, 6-1) runs its offense around.
EVANSTON, Ill. — Cody Zeller (21 points, 13 rebounds), Christian Watford (14 points, six rebounds) and Jordan Hulls (15 points) met with the media following Indiana’s 67-59 win at Northwestern on Sunday afternoon.
Watch and listen to both press conferences in the embedded media players below:
First things first. Indiana is 3-0 on the road in the Big Ten. While it’s easy to pick apart the mistakes this team has made in second halves, particularly in Big Ten play, it’s important to recognize this team is 16-2 overall and 4-1 in the country’s toughest conference.
Early on, Indiana established control despite not playing its best offensively for the first 20 minutes. That’s because the Hoosiers held the Wildcats to 7-of-23 shooting from the field in the first half. Besides Reggie Hearn, Northwestern barely showed up in the first half on its way to 17 points.
Christian Watford was a big reason why Indiana was able to open up a lead of as many as nine points less than six minutes in the game. The senior from Birmingham was hot early on, scoring seven of IU’s first nine points. It seems Indiana has been looking to get Watford going early in games and today was no exception. He finished with 11 points and four boards in the first half.
Cody Zeller also picked back up the strong play he showed in the first half against Wisconsin as he pulled down eight first-half rebounds, three of the offensive variety. Victor Oladipo also had three offensive rebounds in the first half and the combined effort of Zeller and Oladipo led to the Hoosiers posting a 43.8 offensive rebounding percentage before intermission.
But with a 14-point at the half, the question looming in everybody’s mind was this: Would Indiana put Northwestern away or allow the Wildcats to claw their way back in?
It took a while to come to fruition as the Hoosiers led 45-29 with 11:09, but thanks to a 1-3-1 zone defense that Indiana couldn’t solve, Northwestern made a run. The lead dwindled all the way down to five at 47-42 at the 6:48 mark on a layup by Hearn and it became clear that Indiana would either answer the call or let this game go all the way down to the wire.
Fortunately for IU, Zeller was there to make a play, just as he did for most of the afternoon.
His layup with 6:20 to go stretched the lead back to seven and he followed that with an tip-in of a missed runner by Jordan Hulls to make the cushion nine points. Northwestern never got closer than five the rest of the way and Zeller finished with team-highs of 21 points and 13 rebounds.
On Friday afternoon, Tom Crean talked about the challenge his team was going to face against a physically-imposing Minnesota team. The Hoosiers have seen tough, physical teams before, but the Gophers were on another level than Indiana’s other opponents thus far.
In the first half, though, No. 5 Indiana had few problems. The Hoosiers (15-1, 3-0) beat No. 8 Minnesota at its own game, and were incredibly effective on the offensive end. They couldn’t have played much better in the first 20 minutes.
“We knew the things we had to do were take care of the basketball, we had to guard the 3s, and we did none of it in the first half,” said a frustrated Minnesota coach Tubby Smith afterward.
But little did the Hoosiers know, they would be in a fight for their lives in the second half. Indiana lacked some of the intensity it showed to start of the game, and the Gophers (15-2, 3-1) looked like an entirely different team. They played like a team with nothing to lose, guarding Indiana all over the court and playing every bit as physical as Crean expected.
You wouldn’t have known the Hoosiers were prepared for it. At times in the second half, it they looked like they had never seen a press before. They turned the ball over, they stood around, and they failed to match Minnesota’s physicality.
“We didn’t attack it correctly. We just didn’t,” Crean said. “We got caught up in getting it down the court rather than how we were going to get it down the court. We didn’t do a great job with our spacing, we didn’t do a great job with the in-bounds. I’ll blame myself for not having enough screening. They were very, very physical. A couple times, it was hard to get open.”
It was more than just a couple times. The Gophers almost entirely erased a 23-point halftime deficit, cutting Indiana’s lead to just three with 19 seconds remaining. It was closer than it ever should have been, and it looked like the Hoosiers were melting down on their home floor.
At the end of the day, though, Indiana got a win against at top-10 team at home, and that cannot be forgotten. Sure, the Hoosiers have plenty of areas in which they must improve in the next two months, but that’s part of the beauty of what they were able to accomplish on Saturday. Even with their second half struggled and absolutely no production for their bench, the Hoosiers beat a very good Minnesota team.
Jordan Hulls (19 points, four rebounds), Victor Oladipo (20 points, six rebounds, three steals), Cody Zeller (18 points, six rebounds, three blocks) and Yogi Ferrell (13 points, eight assists) met with the media following Indiana’s 88-81 win over Minnesota on Saturday at Assembly Hall.
Watch and listen to their postgame comments in the embedded media players below: