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Spartans make "breathing" hard

Cody Zeller (40) says Indiana will need to be steady and tough in the post, not allowing Derrick Nix (25) and Michigan State's other big men to establish good post position when IU and Michigan State meet Tuesday night at the Breslin Center in East Lansing.

Staring down the barrel of another top-five Big Ten tilt — this time against No. 4 Michigan State — Tom Crean is looking for breathing room.

“There’s nothing you can really look at with them and say: ‘We can play off this. We can not worry about that,’” Crean said of the Spartans on Monday. “That’s why they’re so good. There’s no place to catch a breath with them.”

Indiana (23-3, 11-2) and Michigan State (22-4, 11-2) meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday for a one-game lead in the Big Ten with just four games left in the regular season afterward. But the ramifications extend beyond simply who sits atop the conference standings on Wednesday morning.

Indiana could secure a regular-season sweep over Michigan State, beating the Spartans both home and away, for the first time since 1991, the last year that saw the Hoosiers win in East Lansing. Holding that tiebreaker could prove crucial to seeding in the conference tournament, and to regional location assignments in the NCAA Tournament as well.

But to do that, Indiana will have to take down a team in which Crean sees few weaknesses, if any, from an outstanding pair of post players down low to an athletic, explosive wing to a backcourt composed of both heady experience and youthful vigor.

Michigan State, Crean said Monday, has all the tools to beat any team in the country, including his.

“They’re very, very good at everything,” Crean said. “There’s nowhere that you go in that game and say, ‘OK, they can’t make baskets.’”

Matching up personnel appears on paper to be Indiana’s first challenge.

IU coach Tom Crean said he's worried about the versatility and athleticism of Michigan State forward Adreian Payne (pictured above) ahead of Tuesday's game.

Michigan State was largely without the services of stud point guard Keith Appling when the two teams met in Bloomington last month — the junior finished with three points and four turnovers in 19 minutes before fouling out. But he also scored 25 points in Michigan State’s win over IU at the Breslin Center last season, so Crean and his players are well aware of Appling’s capabilities.

“He’s beaten us before. He’s an elite guard,” Crean said of Appling. “He’s got to earn his points. He’s hitting the ground a lot right now on his jump shots, and to me, we’ve got to make sure that he earns those, that he earns those free throws. …

“He does a lot of things, runs their team. He’s excellent.”

Down low, the Spartans will likely throw the strong-bodied Derrick Nix and the increasingly versatile Adreian Payne at big man Cody Zeller, who has failed to reach double digits in points in two of his three games against the Spartans, including a rather pedestrian four-point, 2-of-5 shooting performance in East Lansing last year.

A year on, Zeller will be looking to stay out of the foul trouble that plagued him in Indiana’s trip up I-69 last season. After spending Saturday afternoon working to keep talented Purdue big man A.J. Hammons out of the paint, Zeller said Indiana will again need to focus on protecting the post defensively.

“Nix and Payne are both definitely very talented,” Zeller said. “They’re gonna score at a very high percentage if you let them catch it very easily. You’ve got to fight to keep it out of their hands and just do your work early.”

Payne in particular has grown as a player to the point that he presents multiple match-up problems.

His 3-of-4 performance from behind the arc against Indiana last month at the time matched his entire career total leading up to that game, but it proved a harbinger of more consistent jump shooting from the 6-foot-10 forward. Coupled with his ability to move well on the floor and his presence as both a rebounder and a shot blocker, Crean is wary of Payne’s potentially diverse impact.

Victor Oladipo (4) is likely to play Tuesday, after spraining his ankle in IU's weekend win against Purdue. He scored 21 points in the first meeting between the two teams.

“He’s got a patience to his game. He doesn’t seem like he rushes,” Crean said. “He is an extremely improved player, and I said as much to him after our game. Knowing a guy like that in that program, he’s gonna keep getting better.”

Of growing concern to the entire conference, not just Indiana, is the confidence and consistency of freshman shooting guard Gary Harris, a player with whom Crean is intimately familiar.

Harris is his team’s second-leading scorer at 12.9 points per game, and he has scored at least 14 points in five of his last six games, including a 21-point outburst in Bloomington in late January. Second in the conference in 3-point shooting percentage in Big Ten games alone, Harris is one of a number of Spartan rookies who have impressed Crean with their composure of late.

“The young guys just keep getting better. I think they look a lot like ours in the sense that they don’t look like (freshmen),” Crean said, adding of Harris specifically: “He doesn’t try to do what he doesn’t do. He’s very, very efficient, very solid, uses his athleticism, his strength the right way. But his shooting is a huge, huge factor for them, and for us.”

In Crean’s eyes, the list goes on, from dynamic, athletic wing Branden Dawson to bench contributors like Denzel Valentine, Matt Costello and Alex Gauna, among others.

The only bench player Indiana might not have to worry about is back-up point guard Travis Trice, who continues to suffer from symptoms related to a blow to the head suffered in the first game between these two teams. Trice has not played since Michigan State’s Jan. 31 win against Illinois.

Since losing their conference opener on the last day of 2012, the Spartans have ripped off an 11-1 run, six wins and then five, sandwiched around the five-point defeat in Bloomington.

Nix said last week that he believes Michigan State unfairly underrated, a notion Crean backhandedly disagreed with Monday.

Tuesday night’s game has turned into a top-five showdown, a high-stakes meeting that could determine not just who takes the lead in the Big Ten but who wins it, who gets the coveted No. 1 seed at the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago and who goes where come NCAA Tournament time.

With the quick turnaround from Purdue on Saturday to the East Lansing trip on Tuesday, Indiana has been working on a short schedule ahead of its third game in seven days. While his players, including the hobbled but probable Victor Oladipo, have been resting and preparing, Crean sounded Monday mostly like a man just trying to breathe.

“I thought they were really good when we played them (in January),” Crean said, “and I think they’re really good now.”

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