Indiana must keep defensive improvement to beat Michigan State | Sports

When the Big Ten season resumed for Indiana’s men’s basketball team on January 5, the Hoosiers were averaging 86.6 points in their first three games.

The result was predictable — three straight losses and a 1-4 Big Ten record.

Since then, Indiana has conceded just 55 points in wins over Wisconsin and Illinois. The outcome was also predictable, as the two wins put Indiana in the middle of the darkness of Big Ten teams chasing conference leader Purdue.

Positive reinforcement is always a good thing, and the Hoosiers need to continue the defensive momentum they’ve built when Michigan State comes to Simon Skjodt Assembly Hall for a Sunday lunchtime.

After Thursday’s 80-65 win in Illinois, Indiana’s coach Mike Woodson was relieved to explain how important it was for the Hoosiers to regain their defensive mojo.

“We were pretty much dead in the water going into that game in Wisconsin (a 63-45 win on Jan. 14) and it all started on defense. Our defense has bounced back and put us in position to win,” Woodson said.

The main thing that’s changed defensively is that Indiana isn’t giving up as many points on straight stretches. Neither the Badgers nor the Fighting Illini could get into a roll by driving to the basket.

Indiana (12-6, 3-4 Big Ten) also benefited from the Badgers’ poor 3-point shooting (20.8%). Illinois converted 42.1% but missed 27 2-point field goals, wiping out the percentage.

On an individual basis, both Jordan Geronimo and Miller Kopp were better off the ball after both proved vulnerable, particularly in losses to Northwestern and Penn State.

Woodson wants Indiana to base its identity on its defense. He believes this is the way to climb back up to the top echelons of the Big Ten.

“You’re trying to get her to go into what you want to do from a defensive standpoint. That will determine the rest of the way through the Big Ten. I think anyone can be beaten in the Big Ten. You just have to come ready to play and commit for 40 minutes,” Woodson said.

Indiana center Trayce Jackson-Davis, who posted his second-highest career score at 35 in Illinois, believes the bumps Indiana had in early January were due to adjusting to life without injured Xavier Johnson and Race Thompson had become accustomed to.

“We needed time to figure things out. A lot of people wrote us off because of those two games [Northwestern and Penn State, the first two full games without Johnson and Thompson]. We have to keep grinding. We’re about three points away from 5-2,” said Jackson-Davis.

Michigan State (13-6, 5-3) will surely test Indiana’s newfound defensive capability.

Guards Tyson Walker (14.6 points, 2.6 assists per game) and AJ Hoggard (12.7 points, 6.3 assists per game) form one of the Big Ten’s best backcourts. The last time Indiana faced such a good backcourt was when Northwestern’s Chase Audige and Boo Buie burned the Hoosiers together on Jan. 8 in Northwestern’s 84-83 win at Assembly Hall with 45 points and 10 assists.

Whether striker Joey Hauser (13.4 points per game) is involved in scoring is mostly a matter of fate for the Spartans. All six of Michigan State’s losses came when Hauser scored 12 points or fewer.

“I think we’re ahead of what I expected at the start of the season. Hauser played better. Walker played better. AJ played a lot better, and yet? We’re a mixed bag of nuts. We’re not really smooth. We don’t really look polished,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after Thursday’s Spartans 70-57 home win over 23rd-ranked Rutgers.

As Indiana fights with Spartan guns, Izzo praised Hoosiers’ lead scorer Jackson-Davis, whom he recruited from Center Grove.

“He has sick athletics when it comes to blocking shots, getting rebounds, doing spin moves, finishing and running the court. Elite for a man his size,” Izzo said on Friday.

Michigan State is expected to be without forward Malik Hall (9.9).