Usually the Big Ten screws up these days. But today, let’s give thanks to the old league. This is the first Sunday without NFL in over 20 weeks. What in the heck are we football addicts going to do? That’s where the Big 10 steps in. In the middle of a killer basketball season thats elevating the league as much as football season deflated it, the Big 10 has scheduled three great games right in a row: Michigan State at Indiana, Iowa at Purdue and Michigan at Illinois. The first has Big 10 Title implications, the second has eventual NCAA Bubble ramifications with the Hawkeyes, while the last game has both.

When the league announced its conference season, the first thing I did was circle all the head-to-heads between Indiana, Michigan, Michigan State and Ohio State. We’ve seen two of those matchups already, and they didnt disappoint. Both were three point decisions with OSU topping UM and MSU beating OSU. The home team has won each. Whem MSU travels to Bloomington today to play the Hoosiers, it will be the third of 12 games between these four with the final nine all taking place in the final month of the season. It’s #7 vs #13 in the AP rankings and #2 vs #16 in the KenPom ratings. The Hoosiers are the higher ranked team in both systems. KenPom favors IU in a 11-point game, projecting a 74-63 final score. Vegas favors the Hoosiers, hanging out a -9 at betting parlors. It’s the biggest game of the year, again. The Spartans enter today in first place at 6-1, with IU and UM both just a half game out at 5-1. The Hoosiers can take over first place with a win. The Spartans can extend their lead and cap the week with another big road win after toppling Wisconsin in Madison five days ago. Before the prediction, lets take a look at what to watch as this affair plays out.

OLADIPO VS DAWSON, A FREAKY HEAD-TO-HEAD…….The most exciting part of this game might be the sequences when Indiana’s Victor Oladipo is matched up with MSU’s Branden Dawson. We’ll probably see this more when Indiana has the ball. Defensively, I would expect Oladipo to see more time on Keith Appling, trying to shut down MSU’s leading scorer and top perimeter option, especially when defensive liability Jordan Hulls is on the floor having to check somebody like Gary Harris. Both these players have unique skill sets, can do a lot of everything statistically and usually are the best athlete on the court in any game they play. Oladipo has mastered his game and is authoring a player of the year type of season. You cant take your eye on off him when watching. When he’s on, he’ll make about a half dozen plays that, if you’re a Hoosier fan, will leave you at a minimum cackling with glee. He’s 2nd nationally in individual EFG% at 71.5%. He’s one of the best offensive rebounders for his position, is an expert steal artist and an elite on the ball defender. Frankly, he’s the best player on this team. Dawson is still trying to pull his whole game together and it cant be said enough that he’s doing it this year less than a year removed from ACL surgery. He’s shown to be a bit of a hothead and would probably be the favorite on the board to emotionally get into early foul trouble at a venue like Assembly Hall. But his potential the second half of his college career is high. He’s already a terrific rebounder and was the most electric player on the court, with 18 points and 13 boards, in their upset in Madison earlier in the week. He might need to produce an encore performance for the Spartans to get out of Bloomington with a win.

CUE THE VINTAGE GREAT OFFENSE VS GREAT DEFENSE CLICHES……..From a team standpoint, conventional wisdom says its a battle of Indiana’s high powered offense vs the Spartans stingy, physical defense. The Hoosiers are 4rth in KenPom’s offensive ratings, the Spartans 16th in his defensive ratings. Indiana scores 83.7 points per game, Michigan State allows 57.8. Indiana is 3rd nationally in EFG% at 56.6, the Spartans are 25th in EFG% Defense at 43.4%.  Indiana needs to be ready for a physical game against MSU, but sometimes thats been their downfall. The Hoosiers have struggled against physical, determined defenses this year. Sometimes it bothers Cody Zeller and pushes him off his game, like his 2-point second half against Wisonsin after Bo Ryan made him the target of his halftime adjustments. Other times, it makes it difficult for the rest of the offense to get him involved consistently enough, like his long stretches without a touch during the second half of the Butler loss. The Hoosiers are among the best in the country and getting good looks in close at the goal. They shot 53.6% on their 2-point attempts. However, they shot those 2s at 43.1%  and 40.5%  in those losses to Butler and Wisconsin respectively. The Spartans are pretty good at forcing bad, contested looks even from in close. They allow just 41.9% of the 2-point shots against them and have only allowed more than 64 points four times this year. This is a team that absolutely has the defensive chops to follow Butler and Wisconsin’s blueprint, except they have more talent than those squads.

THUGZ, STEALING SPARTANDAWGS……………..The Spartans dont have the firepower on paper to keep up with Indiana. The Hoosiers have an extra gear offensively that I dont think the Spartans have. So the Spartans are going to obviously want to dictate pace and keep this from a track meet. That said, they’re also going to need to answer Indiana’s monster transition game with their fair share of easy, quick buckets of their own. This is one of the country’s best teams at generating steals, doing so on 13% of all possessions, good for 25th nationally. Appling and Dawson are the ring leaders here, but really it seems as if MSU’s team defense is somewhat geared to give everybody a shot at the interception. Can Michigan State bring this game to Bloomington, get out on the break and convert enough so that the fast break portion of the box score isnt totally out of hand for the Hoosiers? It could be a problem for IU. They’re just 111th nationally in offensive turnover percentage and 146th in steal percentage against. However, you cant bring up turnovers as a key without talking about MSU’s own sloppy issues. They’re 204th nationally of offensive turnover percentage. But they’ve really tightened up this portion of their game on their five game winning streak, averaging a smidge more than 10 turnovers a game. They obviously need to keep this contained in the face of an IU defense that’s pretty competent at forcing mistakes and generates a turnover on more than 22 percent of all possessions.

CAN IU SURVIVE THE 5-ON-4 HULLS GAME……….Jordan Hulls defensive weakness was mentioned above. It’s a problem and against better teams its a dangerous game of 5 on 4 out there on the defensive end. If you assume Oladipo on Appling, then the time is ripe for freshman Gary Harris to have some scoring punch when Hulls is checking him. Hulls is out there for his offense. His lack of defense gets overlooked by fans until  he’s also not pouring in points at the other end. In the Hoosiers one Big 10 loss, he didnt hit a single trey against Wisconsin and comitted a couple critical turnovers late. In their only other truly close league game they’ve played, he went 0-for-10 from the field when IU squeezed by Iowa. He gives away too many points on the defensive end for the Hoosiers to afford scoreless-type nights out of him. If he’s scoring as much as he’s giving up, then the Hoosiers will probably be alright. But if the Spartans can harass him and blanket his three point attack, they can keep the game in a scoring range they’re more confortable playing in.

HOOSIERS HOME ON THE FREE THROW LINE……..Free throws are always important in Indiana games, especially at Assembly Hall. Maybe the Monroe County Cutters intimidate all incoming officials, but it sure seems there is a Bloomington Mode when it comes to officiating that piles up the fouls on the visiting team. On the road in a big game against Indiana, you have little chance if you’re giving the Hoosiers a parade to the charity stripe. Indiana is second nationally in offensive free throw rate. They’re averaging 31.5 trips to the line in Big 10 play. Part of the upset the Badgers authored on this court earlier in the month was limiting IU to just 19 free throw attempts. But the Badgers are 40th nationally in defensive free throw rate and annually are among the elite in this statistic.  Michigan St is 168th in defensive free throw rate. That’s not terrible. But not really good either. It’s average. That should be edge Indiana. Would anyone be surprised if the Hoosiers approach 40 freebies sparking an 82-64 rout? Would anyobe be surprised if the whistles piled up so much that Izzo is forced to play fatal and extended minutes with Russell Byrd and Matt Costello? Oh, nobody, eh?  Alright, glad we’re on the same page here. But here’s the catch. Can Indiana make their free throws? They’ve averaged 13 misses a game in conference play with four games of at least 10 clanks from the stripe.

MORE SHEEHEY, LESS ABELL PLEASE……..The Hoosiers have a couple of bench options that bear watching in Will Sheehey and Remy Abell. Sheehey is a smooth player who, a little bit like Oladipo, does a little bit of everything when he’s on the floor. He’s an extremely polished chip to put into action. However, the junior has been struggling in Big 10 play. After scoring a critical 13 points in the road win to start conference play at Iowa, he only scored 14 points total in the next four games. After just four single digit scoring efforts in the team’s first 14 games, he already has four in conference play, including goose eggs against Minnesota and Wisconsin. He’s avergaing 10.5 points, 3.6 boards per game on the season, but in the last five games those numbers are down to 5.2 points and 3.0 rebounds. After avergaing just 1.35 turnovers a game in the first 14, Sheehey’s coughed it up 1.8 times a game in the last five. Ok, so he’s slumping, You get it. Now, he did bust out for 12 points and three treys last time out against Penn State. Was that a slump buster or just Penn State? If the Hoosiers are going to pull out showdowns like this en route to winning the Big 10 title, they need Sheehey to bounce back into form. Meanwhile, poor Remy Abell. I say that because I am about the throw him under the bus. He needs to play less. I think the sophomore can still develop into a good Big 10 guard for IU during his career, but right now he’s a momentum killer. The Abell bricked shot followed up by him quickly and needlessly committing a ticky-tack foul on the defensive end has become a staple in Indiana games. He has not made a shot in 20 days. He has twice as many turnovers as made shots in Big 10 play. I’m holding my breath as a Hoosier fan when he’s in the game these days. Abell’s struggles aside, how Crean manages his bench and all his options is always worth watching. Sometimes he finds combination that light it up. Other times he bogs the game down by constantly swapping guys in and out trying to go10 deep. Michigan State wants to get away with basically playing the same guys. The point differential in sequences when IU has their various what the hell lineups in should be tracked.

PREDICTION? PREDICTION!

So who do we like? We’re always interested in favorites that will shoot a ton of free throws compared to their foe. Certainly, the Hoosiers qualify there. But we’re also loathe to lay chalk with teams struggling from the line and the Hoosiers fit that bill too, making just 68 percent of their freebies in Big 10 play. While I theorized above that a parade to the free throw line could be the charge in a big Hoosier win, it’s also possible this ends as a tight, 1-2 possession game down the stretch, with the Hoosiers winning but the main postgame talking point centered around 17 missed IU free throws. Besides, the Hoosiers are just 3-7 ATS in their last 10, including dropping four in a row to the number. During their Renaissance since the beginning of last season, they are just 6-12 ATS as Big 10 Chalk.  Meanwhile, its been the year of the underdog for Michigan State. The Puppy in Spartan games in 10-5-1 ATS this season.  I’ll ride both those trajectories out. Indiana wins, but MSU covers in a 73-65 final score.