By Ashley Dunkak
DETROIT (CBS DETROIT) – To head coach Tom Izzo, teams would be remiss to discount Indiana just because the Hoosiers lost to Northwestern right after pulling off a dramatic upset of Wisconsin. The fact the Spartans defeated the Hoosiers handily on Jan. 4 does not seem to give the venerable coach any solace either.
“If they beat Northwestern they’re one of the hotter teams in our league,” Izzo said, “and they lose that game after a great win against Wisconsin, and you kind of wonder what’s wrong, but I think the big thing I saw what was wrong, if Gary Harris goes 2 for 15 or whatever, I think 2 for 14, whatever [Yogi] Ferrell went, we’re not going to be very good either, especially in their case with him, and that was what happened. Played against a team that we all have struggled with that’s played pretty well defensively in Northwestern.”
Michigan State and Indiana last met in Bloomington, and the Spartans (17-1, 6-0) emerged with a 73-56 victory. Izzo credited the defense of the Spartans but noted that the Hoosiers have been evolving.
“When we went down there, we did a great job on [Noah] Vonleh, did a decent job on Yogi, and Troy Williams didn’t do much,” Izzo continued. “Now the [Stanford] Robinson kid hurt us, and he’s been playing better … [Austin] Etherington and Robinson have been playing better for them, and I would expect that they’re going to come out ready to play on Tuesday after the loss they had on Saturday.”
While Indiana (12-6, 2-3) is not nationally ranked, Izzo puts stock in where the Hoosiers stack up in the Big Ten.
“They’re leading the league in rebounding,” Izzo said. “They’re in the top three in scoring margin, [Vonleh] I think is playing better, he leads the league in rebounding. Yogi, after a miserable game, he’s still third in scoring in the league … Etherington is playing much better than he was playing.”
The strength of the Big Ten, so often touted as a power conference, sometimes comes into question nationally because of the league’s failure to have a team win a national championship in more than a decade. While Izzo said he personally does not need that kind of justification for the conference’s reputation, he understands that some do.
“I’ve been to enough Final Fours where I know how luck, injuries, fouls, there’s so many factors that factor in to trying to win six games straight at the end of the year, but I understand the argument too,” Izzo said. “When you look at the fact that we haven’t won one even though more than a couple times we’ve had multiple Big Ten teams in Final Fours, I understand that.
“I feel like we’ve been part of the problem,” Izzo added. “I don’t know if we should be judged that way, but I understand why and I even agree with some of it, but when you’re on this side of it, you see how hard it is to get to a Final Four.”
To Izzo, the Big Ten is clearly one of the toughest leagues in the country, and he uses the poll rankings to back up that belief.
“There’s always the glass-half-full or glass-half-empty theory,” Izzo said. “I don’t know if Minnesota or Indiana ever did get rated, but if they weren’t, they were right on the cusp, so that would be eight teams that have been ranked. There’s been three in the top 10 most of the year, there’s been three in the top five a good portion of the year, and yet I think the strength of the conference is in the lesser teams.
“You could run into a three-, four-, five-game stretch that you could be really, really good and lose a lot of them,” Izzo added.
Facing No. 21 Michigan on Saturday and No. 10 Iowa the following Tuesday, the Spartans are in one of those stretches right now, and despite the lack of a ranking, in Izzo’s mind Indiana starts that tough portion of the road.