Tipoff: Indiana at Michigan State, 7 p.m. tonight
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BLOOMINGTON -- So now there's be-more-man-than-the-other-guy drama. There is, if you push the envelope, and we'll push it a little, a war of the words heading into tonight's college basketball epic between No. 1 Indiana and No. 4 Michigan State.
Or is there?
Is it just silly stuff, one-sided blather before the nationally televised storm? Do a few comments by Michigan State's Derrick Nix, which mix chip-on-the-shoulder truth with perceived dissing, constitute fighting words?
IU coach Tom Crean downplayed it. At least, he did publicly. In the privacy of the locker room, he might have used Nix's comments as former Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes once, so the Urban Meyer story goes, tried to demonstrate toughness by using a turtle to bite his … well … let's not go there.
Anyway, according to Yahoo! Sports, the 6-9, 270-pound Nix told reporters in East Lansing that IU's Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo are overrated.
Well, that's not EXACTLY what Nix said, but you can bet it's been turned into that for Cream 'n Crimson motivational purposes.
Basically Nix said he thinks he and teammate Adreian Payne are “underrated,” while there are a “lot of overrated players out there.”
Nix said that “Oladipo is no different than (Michigan State's Branden) Dawson. Dawson's not on the draft board; Oladipo is in the top-15.” He added that “Payne is 6-10 and can do everything that Zeller can do. He's not on the draft board. Zeller is in the top-5.”
Nix added that the Spartans, as a group, are “underdogs.”
Crean was asked about the comments before the Hoosiers left Cook Hall for Michigan State late Monday afternoon.
“They see that,” he said about his players. “They're all on Twitter and Facebook. They read. There aren't secrets there.
“We spent time getting ready for a good team (in Michigan State). If I didn't have a mature team … they don't need any more of an edge going into this game.”
IU and Michigan State are tied for the Big Ten lead with 11-2 records. The winner will have a conference-winning advantage entering the final four games of the regular season, although given the Big Ten's brutal competition (three teams are in the top 10, five in the top 20), that advantage might not last beyond a week.
Nix's words, Crean said, won't change that. He said the Hoosiers, “Know who they are. They're starting to realize what they're capable of. They know the (Breslin Center) environment. They're extremely locked it.
“(Nix's comments) don't have anything to do with the drive in this game, because that would be short lived.”
Indiana can't beat Michigan State on just emotion. Not for 40 minutes. It has to execute. It has to defend, rebound, move the ball, make baskets and limit turnovers. It's all the simple stuff every team does to win games.
“We have to get back in transition and find the shooters,” guard Jordan Hulls said. “In half-court, execute the defensive game plan.”
Basically, that means don't let Michigan freshman guard Gary Harris get open three-point looks (he's shooting better than 50 percent from behind the arc the last five games), don't let Nix and Payne post up deep near the basket, and defend point guard Keith Appling well without fouling him.
As for the hype generated by a game that also has NCAA tourney No. 1 seed implications, Zeller kept it simple.
“It is a big game. We're both at the top of the Big Ten, but every game in the conference is big. There is hardly any room for error.”
One thing is certain. Oladipo will play tonight. The slight ankle sprain he suffered Saturday against Purdue is no factor. Crean said Oladipo practiced on Sunday and again on Monday.
“He was good. We didn't push anything to an extreme level. He's excited. He passed the point where he's hurting, although I don't think he's going to tell anybody, anyways.”
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo wasn't trying to stir up things with his pregame comments, and not just because Crean is a good friend who once coached for him.
“I think they've been the premier team in the league all season,” Izzo said about the Hoosiers (23-3).
Izzo also was high on Oladipo and Zeller. He said Oladipo reminds him of former Michigan State player Morris Peterson, who arrived in East Lansing unheralded and developed into an NBA player.
“I don't think there's a coach in the country that doesn't love Victor Oladipo,” Izzo said.
As for Zeller, Izzo called him a “stud inside.”
As for the game, he said, “It's kind of an amazing match-up.”
Michigan State (22-4) has won five straight games since last month's 75-70 loss at Indiana. It is 11-1 since Jan. 1.
“They're playing with tremendous confidence,” Crean said. “They had balance when they played us -- inside and outside. They keep getting better. No question they're one of the best teams in the country. They're very good. There's nothing you can look at and say you can play off this. There's no place to catch a breath.”
And then there's the Breslin Center advantage.
The Spartans are 15-0 at home this season. They have beaten IU 17 straight times in East Lansing. The Hoosiers' last victory there was in 1991, although that didn't seem to bother them.
“It is my last time there,” Hulls said, “and I just want to win. We have a good game plan. It will be a hyped-up game. It will be exciting to play in that environment. It's loud with all the students surrounding the court. It's a cool atmosphere to play in.”
Cool is certain to turn heated tonight, with or without Nix-fueled drama.