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When Purdue and Michigan State met earlier in the season we still weren't even an NCAA team. The loss to the Spartans dropped us to 10-5 overall and thought it was a close game, we were still far from the discussion of even being in the dance. Winning the Big Ten was a pipe dream. That close loss began quite a ride, however. In playing them to a 3-point game without what many people say is our most indispensible player in Robbie Hummel, we gained enough momentum that we haven't lost since. I believe 1996 was the last time we have had a 10 game winning streak, but that can end with a win tonight.

To be a champion you must first get rid of the previous champion. Michigan State has won four Big Ten championship since we last won. We have already disposed of Illinois (a five-time champ in that time), Ohio State (a four-time champ in that time, thought two were forefeited due to sanctions), and Wisconsin (a two-time champ). Other than Indiana (a share in 2002) and Minnesota (1997 champ, forfeited to sanctions), the only one left is Michigan State.

This will not be easy tonight. In the nine games since our last meeting, and especially since Saturday night, we have gone from the hunter to the hunted. This will be the first game that we have taken the floor against an opponent we are battling for the conference lead in which we have the advantage. Both times against Wisconsin we were the underdogs, even at home. We haven't played Indiana yet, and against Ohio State we were probably a slight favorite as that was really the first win that made this group believe. That will be different tonight as we hold the lead over the Spartans, and they desperately need this win to take what they feel is rightfully theirs.

Since we last saw Michigan State:

It's actually a bit refreshing to see someone new after playing the same four teams in the same order over our last eight games. In that time we all know what we have done, but Michigan State has gone 6-2 in various games against the bottom of the league. The most impressive win in that span came over Ohio State in East Lansing when the Spartans won 66-60 on January 15. Michigan State was also tested five days later in Minneapolis but escaped with a 78-73 win over the Gophers in a game that was very close. Other than that the Spartans have had a steady diet of the league's bottom feeders, but they have been vulnerable to them. Of the league's top four teams they are the only one to have a loss to a team outside the top four, and both came on the road at Iowa and Penn State. The Iowa loss can be forgiven as a very bad night offensively against a good defensive team on the road. The Hawkeyes have proven that despite their record, they are a very tough team to play. The Penn State loss is inexcusable though.

Michigan State is in the top half of the conference defensively while Penn State was missing their leading scorer. Penn State is also 1-8 in its last nine games and aside from the Michigan State game where it scored 85 points, they have barely been able to reach 65. It is clear that the game against the Nittany Lions is a completely unexplained outlier, but it certainly raised some doubt on the Spartans in conjunction with the Iowa loss. Now that Sparty is getting into the meat of its schedule they face a most dangerous balance of needing to run the table the rest of the way in order to outweigh those previous losses. Still, this is a team that has impressive non-conference wins at BYU, Missouri, and over Texas on a neutral floor. They also gave UCLA quite a game before falling late, so they are more than capable of going on said run.

Sophomore Raymar Morgan continues to impress by averaging 15.8 points per game and 6.6 rebounds, but his numbers have been well below his average in every game since we last played except a 23 point effort in the first Northwestern game. Considering he scored 31 against Minnesota just before we played the Spartans in January, our holding him to 14 points was a victory. The only other scorer in double figures is Drew Neitzel at 14 per game. His numbers are down since last year, but he has been playing very well of late and will be the key to this game. Against Penn State he scored just 6 points, so it is no coincidence the Spartans struggled in State College.

Around the time of the first Michigan State came I made the comment that something felt off about the Spartans even though they had an excellent record. I still have that feeling about them. Even though they have won a bunch of games they struggled against teams like Minnesota and Illinois. They have been unable to put teams away early and have had to rely on big second halves to get wins. Michigan State is the best shooting team in the league, so that helps when it comes to needing that late push. They aren't particularly stout defensively, but they are the best rebounding team in the league. One of the best names in the Big Ten, Goran Zuton, leads them with 8.4 rebounds per game and he also scores almost nine a game. After the way we were dominated on the glass in Madison it will be critical to block out and keep the Spartans from dominating. We were out-rebounded 33-22 in East Lansing, and we cannot have that big of a margin again.

One final player to watch out for is Junior guard Travis Walton. He only averages 3.5 points per game, but he dishes out 4.5 assists on a team that easily leads the league in that category. Both he and Neitzel love to pass, and Walton was the one that scored Michigan State's final four points in the win at the Breslin Center.

Game Outlook:

As mentioned yesterday, a win over the Spartans would be good for two reasons. First, it would put us in an even better position to win the conference. Second, it would deal a severe blow to one of the contenders behind us. Michigan State cannot afford to lose this game with the schedule they still must face. A win not only would potentially give them a share of first place (pending the outcome of the Indiana-Wisconsin game), it would give them a tiebreaker over Purdue for the conference tournament and allow them to control their own destiny with two games against Indiana and one at Wisconsin remaining. We are going to Michigan State's absolute best effort tonight, and we must be prepared.

So far we have thrived in the role of underdog, but as Boiled Sports stated yesterday, we cannot rest on the Wisconsin win. We have to handle the pressure and deliver at home in a big game when we are favored, instead of relying on being overlooked as an underdog. For the first time this season the eyes of the country will be on us in this regard, and I know that the Paint Crew and the crowd will be ready. Will this team? I, unfortunately, have to work covering a high school game tonight, so I will be avoiding a score and rushing home to write my stories and watch the tape since DVR has yet to come to our house. Rest assured I will be sporting my Chris Kramer jersey and sending good vibes toward West Lafayette.

How will the Scott Martin injury effect us? Missing Robbie Hummel in the first game was a difference in the first game, but Martin didn't put up huge numbers anyway. Still, he is a key part of our rotation off the bench. Since we tend to rebound by committee anything he can give us off the glass will be a plus. Michigan State also tends to go eight or nine guys deeps like us, so having Scott eat up a few minutes will keep everyone else fresher.

Chris Kramer had his best game of the season in East Lansing. He was assertive, shot the ball more, and led us with 19 points. Calasan also had a great game up there, and with the need for rebounding against a team like this we will need both he and Johnson to step up in the paint. I feel that rebounding will be the most critical stat in this one. We got lucky in Madison with that atrocious effort, so we must do better tonight. We must also continue to shoot the ball well. The first time around we hit our free throws, but only shot 41% from the field. We seem to hit our free throws in streaks, but at the end of the Wisconsin game we were starting to streak upward.

Michigan State has struggled on the road this year, so we have to take advantage of that. Not only is this the most important game of the year so far, I feel it is the most difficult as well. We cannot afford another slow start like we did in East Lansing, but we have been doing better in that category lately. Finally we have to cut down on our fouls and play smart basketball. We sent Michigan State to the line 33 times in the first game, and that will not cut it at home. The recipe for success tonight is quite simple: don't foul, play defense, rebound, and hit our free throws. I am confident we will find the hot shooter tonight because we have done so all year. If we do all of these things we should be able to win, but I think it will be close.

When it comes to the pick I am torn. Do I pick against us because the strategy of asking to be proven wrong has worked well and I don't want to jinx us, or do I go for the win and say conventional strategy. I expect a very tight ballgame tonight in West Lafayette, and tight games tend to favor the home team. I'm going with us in a very close game as we hopefully seize full control of the Big Ten. I also feel that my jersey karma has been reversed. On Saturday I sported the black Dorien Bryant jersey I have and the curse of The Fumble from the infamous Wisconsin game was reversed My jersies are now free of evil spirits again. Purdue 65, Michigan State 64