When Indiana (11-3, 1-0 Big Ten) travels to Michigan State (9-5, 0-1) on Monday night, the pressure will be squarely on the shoulders on the Spartans. They've limped out of the gate this season, and they're at risk of dropping back-to-back home games to start the conference season, something that simply doesn't happen under Tom Izzo.
On the flip side, nobody expected Indiana to win back-to-back road games to open the Big Ten.
With that being said, a huge opportunity awaits the Hoosiers in East Lansing on Monday. Open the conference season with wins at Nebraska and Michigan State, and suddenly you're a legitimate contender in a wide-open Big Ten.
I have looked at it like that from the beginning of the year that it is wide open," Indiana coach Tom Crean said Sunday. "Why wouldn't we? Things are done on paper and on experience and predictions are made. That's not what coaches do. You might talk about it once in a while because you have to go inside of the media. But you don't go into any game not expecting to win it and trying to give your team that kind of a game plan to win.
"There are a lot of great teams in this league. This is a tough, tough league."
The Hoosiers are riding high after an impressive win at Nebraska on New Year's Eve, one that saw them blow a 16-point lead only to respond and pull away from the Cornhuskers a second time. A year ago, they would have lost that game.
"It validates to them that they can go on the road, they can follow a plan, they can trust one another on the court, they can move the ball, that they can weather storms and at the same time, come back home and learn that there was all kinds of mistakes we made," Crean said.
Meanwhile, the Spartans come limping into Monday's game, fresh off a heartbreaking double-overtime loss to No. 11 Maryland in their Big Ten opener. Michigan State has dropped two of its last three, including one to a Texas Southern team that Indiana disposed of, 83-64.
The Spartans haven't been blown out by anybody, but they've done an uncharacteristically poor job of closing out games, something that plagued the Hoosiers a season ago. The Spartans still enter the game as a 9.5-point favorite, but that doesn't mean they come into Monday's game full of confidence.
“I think it’s a little fragile," Izzo said of his team's psyche. "You need your seniors to come through, and right now in some of those games, our seniors have struggled a little bit.”
Those seniors -- Travis Trice and Branden Dawson -- have really struggled offensively through 14 games. Trice is the team's leading scorer at 13.9 points per game, put he's shooting only 39 percent from the field and 37 percent from beyond the arc. Dawson, who many expected to take a big jump in scoring this year, has dealt with a left hand injury and is actually averaging 0.6 points fewer than he did a year ago (11.2 to 10.6).
Dawson missed two games with the hand injury and has returned with a brace on his non-shooting hand. He's shooting a dismal 39.3 percent from the foul line.
Dawson, for one, knows the importance of Monday's game against the Hoosiers.
"Monday is definitely a must-win game," Dawson said. "We have to win and we just have to. We're 9-5 right now and we've been so close in the last games we've lost, going to overtime, so I'd say the game Monday is a must-win."
It's also a big opportunity for the Hoosiers, but they're playing with house money, in a sense, because all the pressure is on the Spartans.