Who: No. 5 Michigan State Spartans (11-1) vs. Penn State (9-4)
What: Big Ten play
When: Dec. 31, 5 p.m. (BTN)
Where: Bryce Jordan Center (State College, Pa.)
Fun Fact: History was made
Last season, on Jan. 16, 2013, Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo grabbed his 200th career conference victory against Penn State as the Spartans defeated the Nittany Lions 81-72. The win placed Izzo in the same company as Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski and Syracuse’s Jim Boeheim as the only active coaches in a power conference with 200 conference wins at their current school.
Matchup To Watch For: MSU backcourt vs. Penn State backcourt
If you like guard play, well, it might not get any better than this.
Michigan State’s senior point guard Keith Appling and sophomore shooting guard Gary Harris have been well publicized this season with their play in the Spartans’ victory over Kentucky — Appling finished with 22 points, eight rebounds and eight assists while Harris had 20 points and three steals — and their win over Oklahoma in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic — Appling had 27 points and Harris had 21 points. Izzo has made the case that the Appling-Harris duo is not only arguably the best defensive backckourt in the country, but the best period. And while Harris seems to finally be healthy and Appling bounced back in MSU’s last victory over New Orleans after having two lackluster performances in the previous two games, they may be facing the toughest guards that they will see all season in Penn State’s D.J. Newbill and Tim Frazier.
Newbill, a junior, is averaging nearly 19 points per game while shooting 51 percent from the floor. The 6-foot-4 guard out of Philadelphia has yet to score less than 10 points in a game this season.
As for Frazier, a redshirt senior, he’s played extremely well this season after missing basically the whole year last year after he ripped his left Achilles in the fourth game of the year. Frazier is averaging 18.2 points and 7.5 assists per game so far this season, and while his facilitating and scoring ability are his best attributes, he’s also had five games this year where he recorded five or more rebounds.
The matchup between both sets of guards is going to be one of the best matchups that the Big Ten has to offer, and whether your a fan of MSU basketball or PSU basketball, you’re going to enjoy seeing these four battle for 40 minutes.
X-Factor: MSU’s interior defense
The only way that Michigan State doesn’t leave Pennsylvania with a victory tomorrow would be because they weren’t able to stop Newbill and Frazier at the rim. Harris and Appling, as good as they are defensively, there are going to be many times where Newbill and Frazier get to the bucket in the halfcourt and in transition, and it’s going to be up to big men Adreian Payne, Alex Gauna, Gavin Schilling and Kenny Kaminski to be able to help without getting in foul trouble.
Like I stated before, Frazier is a great passer, however, that’s not necessarily one of Newbill’s strengths. Rotation and help defense will be key for the Spartans when Frazier attacks the basket because he has the ability to find others. If Izzo’s team can play solid team defense then they shouldn’t have any trouble starting off Big Ten play the right way.
Prediction: MSU 74, Penn State 62
Newbill and Frazier are playing incredible basketball right now, and they’re going to do what they do, however, for Michigan State, Payne has been playing phenomenal basketball as well. The combination of a healthy Harris, and depending on which Branden Dawson shows up for the Spartans, those two paired with Payne and Appling will be too much for the Nittany Lions.