Hoosiers seek to recreate upset effort vs. Spartans

Tom Izzo is like the rest of us.

Michigan State’s longtime head coach has no idea what to make of this IU basketball season, and the crests and troughs that have come with it.

“Indiana, it’s the strangest team,” he said this week.

Izzo knows as well as anybody.

One month ago, the Hoosiers reached the high point of their Big Ten season at Izzo’s expense, cobbling together one of their best performances of the year in upsetting the No. 6 Spartans, 79-75, in overtime at the Breslin Center.

In that game, Indiana answered to its weaknesses and shot well from beyond the arc, rebounded with physicality and moved the ball with purpose, capturing the most impressive win of the Big Ten season in the process.

On Saturday, Indiana has to try and do it all over again.

With Michigan State paying a visit to Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall for a noon tipoff, the Hoosiers once again find themselves with an opportunity to make a statement. Inside of the past two weeks, IU is playing as well as it has in 2019, displaying a will to play through its flaws and lean on its defense to give itself a chance to win close conference contests.

With a second win over the Spartans on Saturday, a long, strange season could get even stranger. The Hoosiers are playing just well enough to make it happen, too, entering play with a renewed understanding of the effort level and attention to detail required to topple the Big Ten’s best teams.

“Going into this game on Saturday, our team knows what type of challenge we have, knows obviously that we’re going to have to raise our level,” IU coach Archie Miller said. “I think that’s the one thing our team has tried to do here in our recent two, three weeks is we’ve really tried to raise our level in terms of how hard we’re playing, how committed we are to doing the little things, and it’s helped us. We’ve gotten better.”

And yet, the Hoosiers have won only once since upsetting the Spartans in the first meeting, knocking off No. 19 Wisconsin in a double-overtime battle on Tuesday night. That victory snapped a five-game losing streak for Indiana, which dropped four of those games by no more than two possessions.

The Hoosiers have played with energy and toughness since a soul-searching defeat at Minnesota on Feb. 16, but still haven’t come close to replicating the all-around performance they authored against Michigan State on Feb. 2. Then, IU tied its season high with 10 3-pointers, out-rebounded the Spartans 48-40, grabbed 20 offensive boards and won the majority of the 50-50 opportunities.

Indiana also benefitted from woeful free throw shooting by Michigan State, which went merely 8-for-22 at the line.

Whether IU can actually recreate that performance is difficult to predict with this Hoosier team, especially given the shooting struggles that have plagued Indiana on the perimeter all winter.

But the Hoosiers know there is one thing they can control — their urgency.

“Our team in the first game played extremely hard and that was the biggest thing,” Miller said. “Sometimes when you play really hard and you are committed to playing to win and not worried about a whole lot, sometimes the ball sort of finds you on 50-50 plays and which we had a number of them in that game. I thought we were very active in getting back and stopping some of their easy ones. They had a tough night at the line that night, which played a part in it.

“We had some guys to drive to pass unselfishly at times. We had some guys make some really key shots at really key times. That’s what you have to do to play a team like Michigan State and to be able to win that type of game. You’re going to have to make some plays.”

Even with Michigan State’s issues at the line in that contest, Izzo says the Hoosiers made more winning plays at the opportune times.

“When they beat us here, they shot 50 percent from the 3 and they’ve been shooting, I think, in the 30 percent (range),” Izzo told reporters in East Lansing. “It was in the 20s when they came in here, so that was disappointing on us. They out-rebounded us, had 20 offensive rebounds. That was disappointing. I think we missed 70 free throws, but it seemed like 100. It was ridiculous the number of free throws we missed, the number of front end free throws we missed, and yet they outplayed us. When you (give up) 20 offensive rebounds, you get outplayed.”

Can Indiana shoot well enough to keep up this time? The Hoosiers’ six first-half 3-pointers were a major factor in their win over the Badgers. Problem is, IU’s long-range shooting is a fickle thing. Indiana missed each of its six 3-point attempts over the final 30 minutes of action against Wisconsin, and the team has shot better than 30 percent only once since its upset of the Spartans.

Ball movement and offensive fluidity is another question for Indiana in its matchup with Michigan State. The Hoosiers assisted on 21 of their 28 field goals against the Spartans, but are averaging only nine helpers over their last four games. Indiana has also been held under a point per possession in each of its past five games.

Obviously, for the Hoosiers to win back-to-back games for the first time since Jan. 3, they’ll have to be better offensively than they’ve been.

“You’ve got to be able to score the basketball at some point and you’ve got to be able to use your defense hopefully to create you some offense at times,” Miller said. “You’re going to have to execute and you’re going to have to make some shots, and we obviously have gone through some steady droughts in our games where we haven’t been able to get over the top, and the other night obviously we hung in there pretty good.

“But, especially in the first half, our defense created offense. We were able to score the ball for a good portion of the game in transition, which was good. I think that’s going to be a key in this game. Obviously Michigan State’s transition game is great. They’re as fast a playing team as there is in this league. They go inside, they can play outside, and we’re going to have to be able to get back and deal with them a little bit. But hopefully our offense can stay with us a little bit.”

Of course, recreating the Feb. 2 victory will require Indiana’s best effort.

For the Hoosiers, they know where that begins.

“As we play them here the second time, it’s going to require the same type of mentality,” Miller said. “You can’t worry about anything else other than trying to play hard and playing to win, and usually good things will happen if you have that type of a mindset.”