Close, but no cigar.
Three weeks ago, this was the overarching message after the then-No. 13 MSU men’s basketball team left Assembly Hall with a 75-70 loss to then-No. 7 Indiana. It was a tough one to swallow for a Spartan team who played arguably their best game to date, going down to the wire with one of the nation’s best.
Much has changed in three weeks — the rivalry hasn’t.
The epicenter of the college basketball universe comes to East Lansing tonight (7 p.m., ESPN) as No. 4 MSU (22-4 overall, 11-2 Big Ten) hosts former MSU assistant coach Tom Crean and top-ranked Indiana (22-3, 11-2).
“It doesn’t get any better or bigger than this,” head coach Tom Izzo said. “There’s been a lot of good games here. Who’d ever think the game would overshadow the rivalry game, not that it overshadows (it) but it’s definitely a big, big game and it’s kind of ironic that it’s gonna be played against not only a great team but a great coach who’s a good friend.”
After being in foul trouble for much of the previous contest, junior guard Keith Appling knows what’s on the line.
The winner takes the top spot in the Big Ten, moving closer to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament while the road stiffens for the loser, as both teams have remaining dates with No. 7 Michigan and No. 18 Ohio State.
Appling said he’s looking forward to another crack at the Hoosiers.
“We’re competing for first place in the Big Ten,” Appling said. “That’s one of our team goals this year, to win a Big Ten championship, and now we have an opportunity to compete for it.”
The rematch gives the Spartans another look at one of the nation’s top players in guard Victor Oladipo.
Oladipo has established himself among the elite of the conference this season, averaging 13.8 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while leading the Hoosiers in field goal percentage. In the previous matchup, Oladipo ravaged the Spartans with 21 points, seven rebounds, six steals and three blocks.
Having studied his game often this season, Izzo said there’s nothing but high praise for the type of player Oladipo has become.
“There are better offensive players than him and there might be better defensive players than him, but I don’t think there’s a better combination than him,” Izzo said. “He’s leading their team in field goal percentage and he’s leading it in steals, and that kind of tells you the bottom line.”
Coming into the game, the Spartans have won five-consecutive games, highlighted by a 75-52 drubbing last week against then-No. 4 Michigan. The Hoosiers have won three-straight games after the team was upset by Illinois on Feb. 7.
As the eyes of the college basketball world descend upon Breslin Center, freshman guard Gary Harris and the Spartans will look to walk away with yet another victory in front of a national television audience.
“This is a game that anyone playing college basketball would want to be in,” Harris said. “The environment, big game, it’s going to be on ESPN. It’s what we love to do.”