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A battle for First Place: Michigan State preview

This is the big one, and I probably jinxed us. If we play in typical Purdue fashion, we go out and lose badly tonight in the national spotlight, thus inviting all kinds of criticism from those that showed up yesterday. Honestly, we would be open to it too. This is a statement game tonight. A win allows us to take control of the Big Ten and our national destiny in terms of seeding. In Joe Lunardi's most recent bracket we are three seed behind West Virginia (a team we soundly defeated) and Michigan State. A loss probably knocks us from the top two seed discussion, and rightfully so. It is our fault for blowing the Ohio State game at home and for losing at Northwestern.

This game takes on added importance because of those losses. If we had held on to just one of those games, especially Ohio State at home, we would be fine in the Big Ten race even with a loss. Now, we almost need this game. With the Buckeyes heading to East Lansing later this month there is a great chance that Michigan State could get another loss before coming to Mackey Arena, but we also must go to Ohio State and I am not confident about that game at all.

Right now, we are the Big Ten's best chance at a top 2 seed because of our spotless non-conference record and the good wins over West Virginia, Wake Forest, and Tennessee. We won't get there, however, without a win either tonight or in Columbus and a share of the Big ten title.

2009-10 Record: 19-5, 9-2 Big Ten

2008-09 Record: 31-7, 15-3 Big Ten (lost in National Championship game to North Carolina 89-72)

Blog Representation: The Only Colors, SpartyMSU

Series with Purdue: Purdue leads 62-44

Last Purdue win: 72-54 at Purdue on 2/17/09

Last Michigan State win: 62-51 at Michigan State on 3/8/09

Last Purdue win at Michigan State: 99-96 (OT) on 3/1/1998

The numbers above help to paint the most frustrating part of being a Purdue basketball fan. We currently lead the all-time series with every Big Ten team save one (We're tied with Ohio State). We have more Big Ten titles than anyone, yet we have done virtually nothing on a national stage. I admit, this is why I cry out for respect like yesterday, but we won't get it until we do something on a national scale. Tonight's game can help that.

The Michigan State-Purdue series has been great the past few seasons. The home team has won the last six regular season contests. The last two years have featured four games that played a large role in the Big Ten standings. Two years ago an early season loss in East Lansing (sans Robbie Hummel) cost us the Big Ten title. Last year we had a resounding win in West Lafayette that kept us alive in the race until a late season slide.

So far this season Michigan State has been good, but they have struggled in high profile games. They lost non-conference games to Florida, North Carolina, and Texas. All there of those teams are currently struggling as North Carolina is in danger of missing the NCAA's, Florida is on the Bubble, and Texas has fallen from #1 to outside the top 10. In conference play they played with fire by winning close games at Minnesota and Michigan, but finally got burned at Wisconsin and Illinois. All of those losses occurred away from East Lansing.

A major reason that the Illinois game was a loss is the main subplot to tonight's game. Guard Kalin Lucas (15.6 ppg, 4 apg) did not play after spraining his ankle against Wisconsin. I watched most of the Illinois game and I think it is an MSU win if Lucas plays. Lucas simply makes the Spartans go. His experience, calm demeanor, and talent drives Michigan State. He won both the Minnesota and Michigan games with a late basket, so he is clearly their go to player if they need a score.

The big question of tonight is: will he or won't he play? The Only Colors seems to think he will at least give it a go, but he will likely be limited in minutes and what he can do. Outside of Lucas the Spartans have very balanced scoring from Durrell Summers (10.8 ppg,) Raymar Morgan (10.8 ppg, Senior CLASS award candidate with Chris Kramer), and Draymond Green (10.5 ppg, 8 rpg). This team is so balanced because few teams share the basketball as well as Michigan State. The Spartans are averaging 17.9 assists per game. That is good for fourth in the country behind Notre Dame, Syracuse (further proof I was wrong yesterday) and Sam Houston State.

Michigan State does it much like the Orange and the Irish by spreading those assists around. No player averages more than Lucas' four per game, but five players average at least two dimes per game. This allows Michigan State to control the tempo and play with patience against good defenses. Michigan State is also a great rebounding team (nearly 40 per game) and they will crash the offensive glass. We have to make a conscious effort to keep them off the glass. Another craptacular effort like the Northwestern game will result in us getting owned on the glass.

Michigan State does this without much size. Last year they had a big bruiser in Goran Suton. This year, only Garrick Sherman (2.2 ppg, 8 mpg), a freshman, is taller than 6'8". Michigan State does its rebounding by sheer effort of will. I am impressed by their ability to rebound because they make it a priority and everyone works for it. We have to match that intensity on the glass.

If Lucas cannot go or is limited we will see 5'11" sophomore Korie Lucious at the point. He plays about 24 minutes per game regularly and scores 5.1 while averaging 3.8 assists). He hasn't reached double figures in scoring since the loss to Texas. Chris Allen (9.1 ppg) and Delvon Roe (7.4 ppg) play plenty of minutes, while we might also see Austin Thornton and Derrick Nix. Nix and Thornton play less than 10 minutes per game and average less than two points, but they have been known to contribute from time to time.

I think the biggest player in this game will be JaJuan Johnson. We are at our best when he is playing well in the post and hitting his jumper when he steps out to the top of the key. He can have a big game tonight because he will be the biggest player on the court for most of the night. He has stayed out of foul trouble recently, but there is always the chance those troubles can come back.

Defensively, we must be wary of the Spartans because they are a great shooting team. They don't rely on the 3-pointer, but they still shoot it fairly well. They also shoot 48.5% from the field overall. They are not a great free throw shooting team at 68.7%, but Lucas, Summers, Allen, and Luscious are great closers at 80% or better. Michgian State currently ranked 13th in the country in shooting percentage. I also look even more foolish as Syracuse ranks #1 at 53.1%. Please consider yesterday's entry #1 on "the list of things I wish I had never written."

Honestly, I am not liking the numbers going into this game. I am also not liking our tendency to allow late 3-pointers while we're trying to hold a lead. If Lucas plays he is going to take an already great crowd to another level. Michigan State has declared a white out, so let's hope they have the same luck that Penn State did with those in football this year.

I am encouraged by the fact that MSU has struggled with turnovers at times this year. While they share the ball well, they turn the ball over almost 15 times per game. We're going to have to get to that number tonight, especially if we struggle to rebound.

Much of this game depends on the status of Lucas. I think we have an excellent chance if he does not play. If he plays and is ineffective, we have a decent chance. If he plays and is effective, we will struggle. We have to play better defense than we did against Indiana as well. It is interesting that this is our last "first look" at a team in the conference this year. I thank the Big Ten for saving the best for last.

Keys to the game for Purdue:

  • Create matchup problems with JJ in the post
  • Play better perimeter defense
  • Lewis Jackson and Chris Kramer must prevent drives
  • Get bench contributions from Keaton Grant, John Hart, etc.
  • Don't succumb to the crowd
  • Everyone must work to rebound

Prediction: Michigan Stat 72, Purdue 68