Big Ten basketball is nothing if not predictable, in at least one sense - the middle of the league is going to spend the first couple months of the calendar year punishing one another. The question is, how big is that middle piece?
At the bottom end, it seems safe to say that Minnesota is not good at 1-4 in conference play and 7-8 overall. Nebraska is not much better, at 2-5 and 9-9. At the top, Purdue is obviously the class of the field, with their lone loss of the season at home to Rutgers by a single point. Between the Boilers and the Huskers? Who knows. Michigan State heads into a Monday showdown against the Boilermakers looking to show that they belong at the top of that murky middle.
Tom Izzo’s Spartans came into Friday night’s game at Illinois tied with Purdue at the top of the Big Ten standings, coming off of a gutsy road win at Wisconsin. In what had been a tight game in Champaign, Illinois pulled away late against the backdrop of a miserable shooting night from MSU. To make matters worse, Malik Hall rolled his ankle late in the ballgame, putting his status and level of effectiveness for Monday in question.
When Purdue comes into the Breslin Center on Monday afternoon, the Spartans will have to have turned the page on Friday night’s lost lead and their shutout from beyond the arc. Luckily, they’ll have a home crowd behind them, even if its placement as an MLK Day matinee is outside of the norm. While MSU was able to avoid having to tangle with Wisconsin’s best player, Tyler Wahl, in last week’s game, they won’t be so lucky when it comes to Purdue’s Zach Edey. Edey, a 7’4” force for the Boilers, will be the best player on the court on Monday. Edey will provide a fascinating test for all of MSU’s centers - Mady Sissoko, Jaxon Kohler, and the ascendent Carson Cooper.
In Big Ten play, the last team you want to face in a “get right” game is Purdue, but MSU should be able to be competitive, especially if Malik Hall is healthy enough to make a difference. Purdue has been a bit shaky on the road in conference play, beating Nebraska by 3 in overtime, and taking down Ohio State by 2 in Columbus. MSU should provide as challenging an environment as either of those two venues. In the last 6 games between the Spartans and Boilermakers, MSU is 1-5, so recent history is not on MSU’s side.
The middle eleven of the Big Ten is a clump of mostly ugly basketball where a stray punchfrom each day’s fight can knock anyone out, even Purdue. Going into Friday night, Michigan State was at the top of that pile, and even after losing to the Illini, are near the top of that pile. What they do against Purdue can reinforce their spot relative to the rest of the league, but even with a win, it doesn’t necessarily catapult the Spartans into the top level of the conference. Competing with Purdue, showing some sort of answer for Zach Edey, and illustrating that they belong on the same floor will bode very well for what this team can do come March. A win would be a tremendous bonus, and a statement that the Spartans are clearly the best in their tier.