Frontcourt battles key to Indiana-MSU men’s basketball game Sunday

With first place in the conference on the line, the Spartans’ trip to Assembly Hall could be the team’s biggest challenge of the young conference season.

They’ll need to stop the Hoosiers’ fast break.

They’ll need to get more production from their bench.

But more than anything, the outcome of Sunday’s tilt (1:00 p.m., CBS) between the No. 13 MSU men’s basketball team (17-3 overall, 6-1 Big Ten) and No. 7 Indiana (17-2, 5-1) might come down to which team’s vaunted frontcourt gains an edge.

“It’s a big key. It’s a big key,” MSU head coach Tom Izzo said.

“A lot of people say they go as (senior guard Jordan) Hulls goes, but I think (the frontcourt) is a big key because we can’t get into all kinds of foul trouble the way they penetrate.”

The battle between Indiana’s Christian Watford, Victor Oladipo and Cody Zeller against MSU’s combination of Branden Dawson, Adreian Payne and Derrick Nix could be a battle of the two best frontcourts in the conference and the strength of the Big Ten’s top two teams.

Izzo said what makes Indiana’s combination particularly lethal is the number of fouls they draw, saying “they’re making more (free throws) than most people are shooting,”

The matchup has led Dawson — who is expected to guard both Oladipo and Watford at different times — to place a greater personal emphasis on defense than he has in any other game this season.

Dawson said special attention needs to be paid to Oladipo, whom he described as “one of the best offensive rebounders in college basketball.”

“He’s a high energy guy,” Dawson said of Oladipo.

“He competes every play. He never stops playing. And Watford’s kind of a laid back kind of guy. … On Watford, I can say I can kind of relax, but not too much. On Oladipo I cannot relax at all, so it is a huge difference.”

The difference will also be felt by Payne, who will be tasked with defending both Watford and Zeller.

Although Zeller’s skill set is more typical of the type of player Payne has historically defended throughout his career, he likely will need to spend a significant amount of time guarding the more perimeter-oriented Watford, since Payne and Nix often play together.

Nix said his teammate’s recent experience guarding Ohio State’s Deshaun Thomas will help him be prepared for what he’ll face against Watford on Sunday.

“Thomas and Watford are kind of like the same player,” Nix said. “They’re pretty quick. Watford’s a little taller, but it’s pretty much the same kind of player, so I think Payne will be fine.”

As for Payne, he said he’s gained confidence from going up against the Big Ten’s top scorer in Thomas and is up for the challenge Watford will bring.

With a spot atop the conference standings on the line, Payne said both frontcourts will be ready for a battle.

“We’ve got enough options on our team where we can cover them, and they’ve got enough options on their team where they can cover us,” Payne said. “This is going to be a gut-it-out, dog-eat-dog game.”

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