BLOOMINGTON -- So here comes Michigan State, the green-and-white bruise brothers of the Big Ten, and the basketball stakes are sky high.
But Indiana coach Tom Crean has a bigger worry:
Tom Izzo is happy.
“The thing that really concerns me,” Crean said, “is how excited it seems Michigan State is.”
Crean and Izzo go way back. Crean has Izzo's top assistant coach in the late 1990s before taking over at Marquette and, later, Indiana. He knows Izzo's moods about as well as he knows his own.
“I'm used to Tom Izzo and it's gloom and doom,” Crean said. “It's the sky is falling. He's only happy when he's miserable.”
Except the rules appear to have changed. Misery has disappeared from the Izzo playbook given the No. 13 Spartans' six-game winning streak that has pushed it to the top of the Big Ten standings with a 6-1 record, 17-3 overall, entering Sunday's Assembly Hall showdown. They are playing as if they mean business, with rib-rocking defense, efficient offense and the usual control-the-boards menace.
Today at Assembly Hall the No. 7 Hoosiers (17-2) will try to change that. They and No. 2 Michigan (18-1) are right behind in the league standings at 5-1.
“I'm reading some of the comments coming out of Michigan that those guys are really ready to play,” Crean said. “That's nerve wracking -- when Tom is really looking forward to a game. His team is in a great frame of mind. We're going to really have to play well.”
The odds makers apparently figure they will. IU is a double-digit favorite.
Crean and Izzo have known each other since the late 1980s, and are as good a friends as you'll see in the coaching profession. Since Crean took over at Indiana in the spring of 2008 they've played each other six times. Izzo has a 5-1 edge.
“I don't enjoy going against somebody I have that much history with and that much of a friendship with,” Crean said. “I do enjoy going against great coaches, getting your team going against a team that's so good. You have to have a strategy for everything. You know he does.
“In a perfect you wouldn't play you're closest friends, but I've got two brother in laws (San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh and Baltimore coach John Harbaugh) getting ready to play against each other (in the Super Bowl). That's a pretty good world. It is what it is. We'd better be on top on our game.”
That top includes getting physical. The Spartans are known for their rugged style that emphasizes rebounding and transition.
“We've got to do our work early,” forward Christian Watford said about dealing with all the banging sure to come. “Make their catches tough. Try to deny them as much as possible. Keep them off the glass.
“We've got to move. Try to wear them down, like we always do.”
Michigan State has impressive inside size with 6-9, 270-pound Derrick Nix and 6-10, 240-pound Adreian Payne. How will the Hoosiers deal with that?
“We won't go one on one with them all the time,” Watford said. “It has to be a team effort. If we get five guys in there rebounding, we'll be all right. We'll get a majority of the 50-50 balls.”
Michigan State is thriving everywhere it goes. In the last week it beat Ohio State 59-56 at home and Wisconsin 49-47 on the road.
“I don't always feel like a (17-3) team,” Izzo said, “but we're finding ways to win. We're doing some good things.”
Turnovers were an early Michigan State problem. It had four games with at least 19 turnovers. In Big Ten play, however, the Spartans average 11.3 (three below their season average). In the last six games, it's 10.8.
“Look at our turnovers,” Izzo said. “They've been cut (darn) near in half compared to the early season. Now we're getting more guys playing better. We're playing with more energy. That's made the difference in why we're better than we were three to four weeks ago.”
Michigan State has been especially good down the stretch. In the last three minutes of its seven conference games it shoots 50.0 percent from the field, 83.2 percent from the foul line and has a total of five turnovers.
Point guard Keith Appling leads the way with a 14.1 scoring average. He also has 86 assists against 48 turnovers along with 34 steals.
Freshman swingman Gary Harris, last year's Indiana Mr. Basketball who was heavily recruited by the Hoosiers, averages 12.3 points and 2.7 rebounds despite battling a pair of shoulder injuries.
“He's been great,” Izzo said. “He started shooting well his first couple of times, then he injured both shoulders, especially the left one. That created some problems for a while. It's hampered his shooting. He hasn't shot as well.
“Defensively and in everything else, he's been pretty good for a freshman. He's hanging in there. When his shot comes back, it will make things better for him and for us.”
For the record, Harris shoots 45.5 percent from the field, 38.7 percent from three-point range.
The Spartans have plenty of inside size to hammer at Cody Zeller. Nix averages 9.1 points and 6.9 rebounds. Payne averages 9.0 points and 6.8 rebounds. And don't forget Branden Dawson, who averages 10.5 points and 6.6 rebounds, and has a team-leading 35 steals.
Playing a limited role is former Blackhawk Christian standout Russell Byrd. He averages 2.1 points, 0.9 rebounds and 9.0 minutes in 18 games. He shoots just 29.5 percent from the field, 20.0 percent from three-point range.
While IU has a 43-12 edge in Bloomington, Michigan State was won two of the last three meetings in Assembly Hall, and has won six of the last seven meetings overall.
“They're a difficult team to play against,” Hoosier guard Jordan Hulls said. “They play hard. We have to do a lot of good things throughout the game -- take care of the ball, get back in transition. We have to get out in the passing lanes, play defense the way we know we're capable. We have to play good ball for 40 minutes.”