East Lansing — When Michigan State and Purdue square off Saturday afternoon at the Breslin Center, the Spartans will have, at least, one advantage.
It’s another top-five matchup, one the Spartans have become accustomed to this season. They took on Duke in the second game of the season in a then-No. 1 vs. No. 2 showdown in the Champions Classic. At the end of November, they hosted Notre Dame in a then-No. 3 vs. No. 5 game as part of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
Now, it’s No. 3 Purdue that visits East Lansing with Michigan State checking in at No. 4. So, it’s becoming old hat for the Spartans.
“We played in two top-five games and that doesn’t happen very often,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “This is the third top-five game of year …. Now it’s us and Purdue, three against four. When you look at it that way it’s a privilege for them. And I told them it’s a privilege you guys got to respond to. Sooner or later the freshmen and sophomores have got to become juniors and seniors, and I think that was my question to them.”
Izzo, of course, wasn’t speaking literally. But the fact remains, the Spartans are relatively young, starting four sophomores and a freshman.
On the other hand, Purdue starts four seniors and, before Wednesday’s loss to Ohio State, hadn’t lost a game since Thanksgiving. However, this whole top-five thing will be new to the Boilermakers.
In fact, the last time the Boilermakers were part of a top-five matchup was more than 30 years ago. On Jan. 31, 1987, Purdue and Indiana were both ranked No. 4. The Hoosiers won that game and, while Indiana and Purdue shared the Big Ten title that season, the Hoosiers went on to win the national championship.
Could the same thing be in store this time? It certainly will have ramifications on the race for the conference championship as Michigan State sits one game behind Purdue and Ohio State. But it will also have plenty of bearing on seeding in both the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments.
The Spartans watched closely on Wednesday as the Buckeyes pulled out the win at Purdue, and now they understand what is at stake.
“The only feeling I had was we needed the door to open,” Izzo said. “There’s a lot of season left but I think it gives one more chance on Saturday and if we win, at worst, we’re tied for first. If we lose, then I guess Ohio State will be up but they’ve got some tough games left, too. But we’d be tied with Purdue and put in better position. I never pull for a team to win or lose. We’ve got to win it our own way, but we do need some breaks along the way.”
The Purdue loss on Wednesday might be the only break Michigan State gets. The Boilermakers had won 19 straight games before the Ohio State loss, and with seniors like Vincent Edward, Isaac Haas, Dakota Mathias and P.J. Thompson leading the way, there’s probably little chance the loss lingers.
Purdue did lose two straight early in the season, but since then, they’ve shown no signs of faltering and the atmosphere at the Breslin Center likely shouldn't shake them.
“I don’t think so with seniors,” Izzo said. “In fact, if anything, maybe that raises them up a notch. With all the seniors that have been through many a war, going on the road isn’t as big a deal for them. I think coming off a loss … I’ve seen it early in the year for us. We came off a loss and weren’t great for the next two games, but we’re really young. I think with veterans — when I had veteran teams if anything you dug down a little deeper.
“So I’m just hoping the crowd, the excitement of the game and maybe Jud can work some wizardry up there if he’s up there.”
The game is doubling as a tribute to former Michigan State coach Jud Heathcote, and Izzo believes his former boss will be watching closely. He hopes his team can play the way Heathcote’s teams did — with toughness above everything else.
It’s the same way Purdue plays and it’s the main reason the Boilermakers are among the best in the country. The Spartans understand that.
“We’re not going to go in and blow them out,” sophomore guard Cassius Winston said. “It will be a battle. They’re gonna make plays. We’re gonna make plays. It’s gonna come down to the little things and the effort we put in.”
The effort matters, but so do the matchups. Haas is a matchup problem, but Izzo believes Nick Ward will hold his own while challenging Haas at the other end. The Spartans will also have to be weary of the Boilermakers’ shooters, among the best in the conference.
Purdue is shooting 42.7 percent from 3-point range, the best in the Big Ten, just ahead of Michigan State at 41.5. Both teams are also Nos. 1 and 2 in the conference in field-goal percentage defense, with the Spartans at 36.1 percent and the Boilermakers at 39.8 percent.
“They are a very good shooting team and they’ve got a post presence, so they’ve got a little bit of everything, which good teams have,” Izzo said. “Maybe their depth isn’t quite (as good). But Matt (Painter) is a good coach and he’s done a hell of a job with them. So, hopefully the game will be as good as the billing.”
Purdue at Michigan State
Tip-off: 4 p.m. Saturday, Breslin Center, East Lansing
TV/radio: ESPN/WJR 760
Records: No. 3 Purdue 23-3, 12-1 Big Ten; No. 4 Michigan State 23-3,11-2
Outlook: The winner will hold the second-place tiebreaker and sit one game behind first-place Ohio State. … Purdue’s 63 points against OSU on Wednesday were its fewest since scoring 62 against Michigan State in the 2016 Big Ten tournament title game. … Purdue has won three of the last four in the series and looks to win three straight for the first time since 1996-97.