BLOOMINGTON – As Indiana heads down the stretch of another bare knuckles Big Ten season, the Hoosiers are aware they will continue to face physical tests between now and Selection Sunday.
Another one of those challenges will come Saturday at home against Michigan State (noon, ESPN). Although the Spartans are having an uncharacteristically off season under Hall of Fame coach Tom Izzo, Michigan State still can impact the game with its muscle inside. MSU ranks fifth in the Big Ten in rebounding margin plus-3.7
Indiana (12-9, 7-7 Big Ten) has won three of its last four as it continues a late-season drive toward its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2016. But it will need to rise to the challenge of Michigan State’s toughness. Indiana sophomore forward Trayce Jackson-Davis ranks second in the Big Ten in rebounding at 9.6 per game and has posted nine double-doubles. But Jackson-Davis hasn’t gotten enough support on the boards from his teammates.
IU ranks ninth in the Big Ten in rebounding margin at plus-0.1 and was outrebounded 36-28 in its 78-59 loss at Ohio State last week. The Hoosiers were better on the boards in a 82-72 win over Minnesota, outrebounding the Golden Gophers 34-24, but still were outscored 15-13 in second-chance points because they allowed Minnesota to grab 13 offensive rebounds.
“For sure, I know versus Ohio State and Minnesota we didn’t rebound as well as we should have,” Indiana junior point guard Rob Phinisee said. “We know coming in Saturday, that’s Michigan State’s bread and butter, them crashing the glass and just getting out in transition. I feel like if we can just limit those two, we should have a good chance of winning.”
All season, Indiana coach Archie Miller has stressed the importance of getting more rebounding from guards, setting a goal of 12 rebounds per game from the starting guard trio of Phinisee, Armaan Franklin and Al Durham. They combined for 11 rebounds against Minnesota, with Franklin grabbing six boards. Miller said IU’s guards came up with several key defensive rebounds down the stretch against Minnesota.
“Every team from here on out is going to test us, just because of the team they think we are,” IU sophomore forward Jerome Hunter said. “If they keep doing that, we are going to keep showing them that we are not going to be pushed around down there. We are not going to be pushed around, and we are not soft down here.”
The 6-foot-7 Hunter gives IU the option to play a more conventional frontline, something Miller said he intends to tinker with in the coming weeks. A frontline of Hunter, 6-8 forward Race Thompson and the 6-9 Jackson-Davis could give IU the boost it’s looking for on the glass.
“Our offense is part of toughness as well,” Miller said. “You are tough with it. You drive it hard. You don’t get the ball stripped from you. You make a good pass. You go to the line. You step in and make two. Our physical toughness, our physical size to me is in question. Our attitude and the way we approach things as a group is not.”
Michigan State (10-9, 4-9) has lost six of its last eight and is in dire need of a win to keep its slim NCAA Tournament hopes alive. It will be a homecoming for junior forward and Indianapolis native Aaron Henry. A former Ben Davis standout, the 6-6 Henry leads the Spartans in scoring (14.3 points per game) while ranking second in the team in rebounding (5.6 per game). Michigan State is coming off a 75-65 loss at Purdue on Tuesday, a game the Spartans kept close before faltering down the stretch.
“I’m not worried about the tournament,” Izzo said following the Purdue loss. “I’m worried about getting my team better, and I’m worried about teaching guys how to play when it’s hard.”