It will be a miserable Monday morning for either Michigan State Coach Tom Izzo or Indiana head man Kelvin Sampson.
Why? Because one of their teams will start of the work week at the bottom of the Big Ten standings at 0-2.
As the Hoosiers and Spartans prepare for Sunday's 4:30 p.m. clash at Assembly Hall, both are one loss away from falling off the conference pace early. Each dropped hard-fought conference openers on the road earlier in the week, with Indiana falling at Ohio State 74-67 and Michigan State stumbling at Iowa 62-60.
While the two-month, 16-game conference schedule isn't even a week old, the possibility of starting things off 0-2 adds a bit of urgency to Sunday afternoon's battle.
"Going 0-2 in this league isn't good," said D.J. White. "I know that's what they are thinking, too. You don't want to get to the bottom of this league because it's tough to bounce back."
Indiana is trying to avoid its first 0-2 league start since 1998. The Hoosiers opened the Big Ten slate that season with a 13-point setback at home to Iowa and then lost by two at Illinois to dig itself an early conference hole. Coach Bob Knight's team regrouped to go 9-7 in the conference, but the slow start kept them from being a legitimate conference title contender.
While talk of a Big Ten championship this season might be overly optimistic considering the strength of Ohio State and Wisconsin, a setback on McCracken Court is something Indiana can ill-afford as it jockeys for a lofty spot in the conference standings and ultimately inclusion into the NCAA Tournament come March.
They'll be looking for a win against Michigan State team that has won only once in its last six trips to Bloomington. It's also a new look squad for Spartan Coach Tom Izzo, who lost his top three scorers Shannon Brown, Paul Davis and Maurice Ager from a year ago.
Despite those losses, Izzo has the Spartans at 13-3 overall and ranked No. 24 nationally. It's a squad that's led by Drew Neitzel, who ranks fourth in Big Ten in scoring (18.4) and is fifth in assists (4.8), and it's a team that's relentless on the boards. The Spartans lead the Big Ten with a +9.9 rebound margin.
"They're a tough team," White said. "They lead the Big Ten in rebounding. The main thing is just play physical with them. They're going to come at us, so we have to come back and be aggressive also and try to not get beat on the boards. That's where they hurt a lot of teams."
The primary culprits are Spartan frontliners Goran Suton and Marquise Gray, a pair of big bodies that have taken on a much bigger role this season. The 6-10, 245-pound Suton ranks fourth in the conference with 7.1 rebounds per outing, while the 6-8, 235-pound Gray pulls down 6.8 per night and ranks sixth.
As important as Neitzel is to the Spartans' success, players like Gray and Suton are of equal concern to Sampson.
"I watched the (Iowa-Michigan State) game and I thought Iowa did a tremendous job (on Neitzel) and he had 20," Sampson said. "You're not going to stop him. He's going to get his points one way or the other. I think the key with them is making sure someone else doesn't have a career game. Their big guys are capable."
Michigan State is also hoping to have its full complement of players available as well. Guard Maurice Joseph returned to the floor against Iowa after being sidelined for four games with a foot injury. The Spartans are also hoping to have second-leading scorer Raymar Morgan back as well. Morgan, who is averaging 11.7 points and 5.6 rebounds, has been out for a month with a stress fracture in his shin, but could be ready to go Sunday.
It all makes for a big match-up for both teams, and a game each needs to win to stay within shouting distance of the Big Ten lead.
"It's going to come down the defensive end, and we just need to knock down shots," said Rod Wilmont. "We're playing at home, and you have to defend your home court."
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