Saturday afternoon the Michigan State Spartans will play the biggest game of the Big Ten schedule when the Purdue Boilermakers come to town. Forget the current standings, the winner of this game will be looked at as the best team in the country and primed for a top seed in the NCAA Tournament.
But beating Purdue won’t require anyone in green and white to play all that spectacular. Instead, the Spartans can earn a win by simply being their best selves.
On paper, there is a lot MSU should be worried about. Despite their ability to dominate on both sides of the ball, the Spartans can get into trouble against teams that can catch fire from deep and teams that can force MSU to play a slow half-court offense. Incidentally, those are two of the strengths for Purdue. The Boilermakers have reached the AP to five in large part because of their ability to force teams to play a specific offensive style and then Purdue makes it hurt with a three on the other side.
One team after another took the floor and tried to find the big bodies to match Isaac Haas, fearing the 7-foot-2, 297-pound center would dominate in the paint. Combined with guards – especially Carsen Edwards and Dakota Mathias – that stay in the opponent’s pocket on defense, Purdue suffocated opponents. Then on the other side of the court, defenses were forced to pick between packing the lane against Haas, Vince Edwards and Matt Haarms, or staying on the perimeter to defend the Mathias or Edwards three-ball.
Except that’s not exactly a true choice. As was proven in their most recent game against Ohio State, teams can beat Purdue by not trying to beat the Boilermakers at their game, but playing a style Purdue can’t match. Now, that’s easier said than done, and could leave MSU susceptible to an ugly loss, but it’s probably the Spartans best chance to win.
This shouldn’t come across as Michigan State trying to find a long shot game plan to upset a much better team. The Spartans are the best team Purdue has played all year and has more talent on the court in most situations that the Boilermakers have in their starting lineup. But Purdue is playing with the consistency that MSU hasn’t shown since December.
Despite that consistency, Purdue struggles in a few areas the Spartans can and should take advantage of. Even with Haarms and Haas, both over 7-feet tall, Purdue is not a strong rebounding team. Second-chance points will be huge. The Spartans are the third best team in the country on the boards and as long as they aren’t turning the ball over, this could be the difference in the game.
The biggest matchups of the game won’t involve either team’s post-power. The skill and depth both Michigan State and Purdue showcase in the low post will likely make for a good show, but will offset each other. Instead, the keys for MSU will be Cassius Winston and Miles Bridges. Winston is statistically the most important player for the Spartans’ offense. He has a 69.4 true shooting percentage, seventh best in the country, and has the 17th best offensive rating in the country. Winston will likely see Mathias defending him most of the time, one of the better defensive guards in the conference. Keeping Winston on the floor will be huge for the Spartans, who look like a different team when their point guard is in foul trouble or keeps turning the ball over.
Similarly, Bridges will need to be the star everyone hopes he can be. The Spartans leading scorer has the ability to stretch Purdue’s post defense in a way no one else on the team can. He will likely see Purdue’s best player, Vince Edwards. While they are virtually the same size, Edwards can’t step out the same way Bridges can and his ability to space out the Boilermakers’ defense could open up even more second-chance points.
None of these keys – from Winston staying on the floor, to Bridges stretching a defense, or Jaren Jackson Jr. and Nick Ward standing tall in the paint – are new for Michigan State. But more than ever, they will need to focus on staying themselves, and not trying to play Purdue’s game.
By Saturday night, one team in the Big Ten will be looking directly at a spot on the top line in the NCAA Tournament. If Michigan State is as good as we all believe them to be, the Spartans should be celebrating.