The Michigan State men’s basketball team (17-6, 84 in Big Ten play) is looking to end its current game two-game losing streak on Saturday at the Breslin Center when the Indiana Hoosiers (16-7, 7-6) come to East Lansing. The contest tips off at 3:30 p.m. and will broadcast on FOX.
To help us learn about what to expect from the Hoosiers on Saturday afternoon, I spoke to L.C. Norton, managing editor at Crimson Quarry — SB Nation’s home for all things Indiana athletics — about the matchup.
1. How has Indiana’s season gone so far? What does the team do well and what does it need to improve upon?
Indiana is currently 16-7 overall and 7-6 in the Big Ten, good for eighth in the conference. Overall, this season has been a positive one thus far as the team comes out of the Archie Miller era and enters that of Mike Woodson. While this certainly isn’t the same team, many of those same players and issues remain from Miller’s tenure.
Indiana’s greatest strength is likely the frontcourt duo of forwards Trayce Jackson-Davis and Race Thompson. Jackson-Davis has been Indiana’s best player for years now and is well-known around the Big Ten and nationally. Thompson, on the other hand, has carved out a larger role under Woodson, averaging 11.6 points per game this season — a jump from 9.1 in 2020-2021.
But the true strength of the two lies in their defense, Indiana is second in the Big Ten in blocks (keep in mind, Michigan State is first) with 5.52 per game.
But when Indiana has lost, it’s mostly because teams have drawn up good plays or fooled the Hoosiers’ defense into creating open looks beyond the arc. This led to Illinois shooting 46.15 percent on three-pointers in the second half of Indiana’s 74-57 loss on Feb. 5. If Michigan State can exploit that, Indiana is in trouble.
2. Indiana recently suspended five players for the Northwestern game (Xavier Johnson, Parker Stewart, Khristian Lander, Tamar Bates and Michael Durr). These players are expected back for the Michigan State game, but do you expect any of them to make an impact? Outside of Trayce Jackson-Davis, which player on the full roster is the most important for the team?
The answer to both questions is guard Xavier Johnson, particularly with the ongoing absence of Rob Phinisee due to injury. Woodson sought experience at point guard in the transfer portal this offseason and found it in Johnson, who transferred from Pittsburgh.
Johnson, who is averaging 10.6 points per game this season, is fully capable of running Indiana’s offense and getting his teammates into position to score. But more important than that is the lack of depth behind him. Trey Galloway, a sophomore, was the acting point guard in Johnson’s stead against Northwestern. While his performance was admirable, he simply doesn’t bring what Johnson does.
Woodson previously said that he’d play Johnson for 40 minutes if necessary in the lead-up to Indiana’s road matchup against Maryland, but that may not be feasible against Michigan State. Beyond the box score, Johnson plays with an energy that’s able to lift up the rest of the team.
3. How has Mike Woodson and his staff (including former Michigan State assistant Dane Fife) done so far in the first year of the tenure? Do Indiana fans generally like what they see from Woodson and company?
Indiana and its fans simply haven’t bought into a coach this much in years, perhaps decades. The athletic department provided masks with Woodson’s now-iconic beard on them to students before games this season.
It should be noted, beating your program’s most-hated rival (Purdue) for the first time since the Obama Administration will do that. This team plays with an energy and enthusiasm that simply wasn’t seen under Miller. Woodson and Fife — both of whom are former Indiana players — understand the program, fans and the media landscape better than just about anyone could. While the win over Purdue was massive and Woodson deserves the credit he’s received, the suspensions of those five players above may go down as one of the most consequential moves of Woodson’s first year as he seeks to establish a culture in the program.
Woodson’s recruiting acumen, the largest area of concern with his hiring, has been a non-issue as well thus far between finding Johnson in the portal and high-caliber players from high school.
4. By the end of the season, where do you see Indiana finishing in the Big Ten and can the Hoosiers make a run in the NCAA Tournament?
I’m not big on specific predictions, but I believe Indiana should finish near the middle of the pack, albeit near the top of that group. This simply isn’t a top Big Ten team yet and it’s been highly evident in the losses to Illinois and Michigan. But it’s capable of beating those teams, as it did against Purdue.
The Hoosiers should make it to the tournament, but likely won’t go too far. Both because that’s simply how the Big Ten rolls (at least in recent years) and this just isn’t a complete team yet. Indiana is fully capable of winning tournament games, but it’ll run into a team it just can’t beat before it can get too deep.
5. Which school wins on Saturday and why?
I believe Michigan State will emerge victorious this Saturday. Indiana has the pieces and ability to win this game, as evidenced in past wins by Miller. But Indiana has a few issues to sort out and this game isn’t a great matchup. Malik Hall and Gabe Brown can serve as an answer for Indiana’s forwards (but I expect Marcus Bingham Jr. to create more issues for Indiana), and the Hoosiers just cannot win if the Spartans get hot on three-pointers, which is a very real possibility.
On top of that, it’ll be an intimidating road environment against an experienced coach (see what Brad Underwood did to Indiana in the second half for reference). The cards are stacked against Indiana, and I just don’t see them as a sure win here.
For those who are interested in reading my responses to L.C.’s questions, head over to Crimson Quarry.